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Contextual safeguarding in youth justice
Probation inspectorate urges Youth Justice Board to issue guidance around contextual safeguarding.

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Research & Analysis

Last week (23 June 2023), HM Inspectorate of Probation published its latest Research & Analysis Bulletin which explored contextual safeguarding in youth justice services. The report is based on a survey of 57 Youth Justice Services alongside interviews and focus groups with both practitioners and managers and a review of case files, strategies and plans for five fieldwork sites.

What is contextual safeguarding?

The report describes Contextual Safeguarding (CS) as a safeguarding approach for practitioners to recognise contextual dynamics and children’s exposure to extra-familial harm (EFH). Within CS, practitioners (and the systems in which they work) assess neighbourhood, schools or peer groups to understand the contextual factors that are contributing to the harm and abuse of the young people who are associated with it. Interventions are then developed within the contexts where that harm has occurred, through relationships building, advocacy, training, policy and practical action, alongside support to the affected young people. Initially focused on and piloted within children’s social care, the approach has generated much interest from youth justice services (YJSs) across the country.

You can see an infographic demonstrating the four components of the Contextual Safeguarding framework which I have reproduced from the report below.


The researchers (Professor Carlene Firmin, Dr Hannah King, Molly Manister and Vanessa Bradbury from Durham University) found there was limited understanding of CS amongst participants and conflation of the term with EFH and seeing a young person in context. 

A key finding was that CS was much better understood in areas where YJS and children’s services were closely linked. CS requires leadership from children’s social care and is principally about safeguarding the welfare of young people impacted by EFH. 

Therefore, YJS need to work closely with social workers, while many interviews focused more on extra-familial risks with policing and wider criminal justice agencies. In general, participants spoke in far more detail about partnership work with the police, and the challenges of this, than partnership working with children’s social care.

The researchers concluded that the relational approach adopted by many YJSs meant they were very suited for adopting a CS approach. They found that YJ practitioners are likely more skilled at engaging with young people than social workers – since they work exclusively with adolescents, while child and family social workers work with children of all ages.

The researchers concluded that there is much interest in, and support for CS, amongst a number of YJ professionals, and that specific elements of their work aligns well to the overall approach; but there is yet to be a service-wide adoption of CS in any YJS to help fully understand the implications of future implementation.

Implications and recommendations

As a result of this research, the authors made seven recommendations, the first four directed at the Youth Justice Board and the second three for individual youth justice services. They recommended that the YJB:

  • issues a clear, working definition of CS that YJSs can use which describes it as an approach to responding to EFH
  • reviews current guidance/training to ensure that CS is not described in ways that implies it is solely about seeing a child in context or responding to EFH
  • considers introductory training or webinar provision to allow a consistent understanding of what the approach entails within YJSs
  • identifies and disseminates case studies in which CS has been implemented by YJSs

The recommendations for YJS who wished to adopt a Contextual Safeguarding approach were that they:

  • identify pathways for making safeguarding referrals related to contexts associated with EFH that are being used, or under-development, in the local area
  • use supervision and formulation meetings to identify contexts in which young people they are supporting are at risk of EFH and the extent to which risk in these contexts is changing (and any associated impact on young people’s behaviour)
  • encourage practitioners to build safety mapping and peer assessment activities into direct work with children and young people, as a means of identifying what makes young people feel safe/unsafe in contexts where they spend their time.


Thanks to Pavel Anoshin for kind permission to use the header image in this post which was previously published on Unsplash.

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