Why contextual safeguarding is critical to keeping children safe from harm outside of the home

Contextual safeguarding is big news in the world of child protection. As a national charity working with parents who have a sexually and/or criminally exploited child, Pace are ardent advocates of the contextual safeguarding approach. This approach recognises that our current child protection system was set-up solely to respond to harm inside of the home perpetrated against younger children. It was not designed to respond to harm outside of the home such as the sexual and criminal exploitation of children. As a consequence, safeguarding professionals are constantly trying to fit a square peg in a round hole and they don’t fit. As a result of this, young people and their families who are victims of harm outside of the home are not safeguarded effectively. To continue working in the way our child protection systems dictate seems questionable, especially when contextual safeguarding offers another option.

Pace was established in 1996 and during that time we have supported thousands of parents from across England and Wales who have a child that is being sexually, and/or criminally exploited outside of the home. In such cases, exploited young people are referred into Children’s Social Care and often placed on a Child Protection or a Child in Need plan. These plans focus significantly on what the parent needs to do differently in order to stop their child’s exploitation.

Harm outside of the home is very different. No one parent, or any one organisation can safeguard a child from this harm; there has to be partnership working from a range of safeguarding agencies. However, as our current child protection system stands, it does not have the systems and tools in place to assess and intervene with these cases. Therefore, it just uses the systems in place; hence, a square peg in a round hole.

Parents feel that they are seen as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution when it comes to the safeguarding of their child

Although there is increasing acceptance (and concern) of this considerable gap in service provision and recognition of the need for a different approach, change is slow and patchy. Meanwhile, young people are left unsafe and families feel unsupported. Parents have repeatedly reported to Pace that they feel judged and blamed by safeguarding services for their child’s exploitation. Parents feel that they are seen as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution when it comes to the safeguarding of their child. Parents report feeling excluded from safety planning; not heard by professionals and not recognised, valued or encouraged to be safeguarding partners. Nonetheless, significant expectations are placed on them to safeguard their child, even when the harm is coming from outside the home.

To this end, and drawn from Pace’s experience of working with thousands of parents and also training tens of thousands of professionals, the Relational Safeguarding Model was created. The Relational Safeguarding Model articulates how Pace works with parents and how we encourage other professionals to work with parents and it fits in perfectly with the contextual safeguarding approach. The Relational Safeguarding Model has three main principles, but fundamentally it stresses the need for effective and strong relationships between parents and professionals; parents and children and vice versa. The Relational Safeguarding Model asserts that if relationships between parents and children and professionals and partners can be developed and maintained it greatly increases the safeguarding of the child and improves the likelihood of disrupting and charging offenders.

The principles the Relational Safeguarding Model

First, unless proven that parents do not have the desire/capacity to be involved in the safeguarding of their child, then they should be treated as key safeguarding partners: viewed as a strength, not a deficit. But, the Relational Safeguarding Model also recognises that sometimes parents who are perceived as not having the capacity to safeguard their child can, with the right support, be key partners in the safeguarding of their child. At Pace, we often find that previous bad experiences of services, or the fear of their child being removed and/or criminalised can deter parents from engaging with professionals. Parents need reassurance and information about what being involved with services looks like for them and their child.

Parents being treated as safeguarding partners means that they are kept informed by services, are included in the safety planning for their child and are regularly consulted regarding their child’s case. It is important to remember, that the majority of exploited young people are living in the family home. Parents know their child better than anyone and have knowledge about them that no-one else has access too.

Parenting an exploited child is exhausting and bewildering, the levels of trauma parents experience is monumental and receiving specialist support is vital

Alongside parents being treated as safeguarding partners, the Relational Safeguarding Model advocates that the parent’s own trauma is recognised and that they are given support. Parenting an exploited child is exhausting and bewildering, the levels of trauma parents experience is monumental and receiving specialist support is vital. A recent evaluation conducted by Pace evidences how life changing support from a specialist worker can be for parents in these situations.

Secondly, the Relational Safeguarding Model advocates that safeguarding plans assess and intervene with the contexts where the harm is happening and with the offenders who operate in those contexts. The disruption and charging of offenders should always be a priority when formulating the safeguarding plan. Thirdly, and directly linked to this is that parents usually have a fount of information about offenders, locations and other young people who may be involved. Such information needs to be utilised by professionals to inform intelligence building alongside the ongoing safeguarding of the child.

Working with parents as partners, enabling them to be part of safeguarding processes and giving them the tools, they need to support their child is central to the battle against child exploitation. To that end, the Relational Safeguarding Model fits in with the contextual safeguarding approach, which amplifies to a national and global audience what we at Pace have been saying for years: if you situate all the focus/blame and need for change on the child’s behaviour and parenting, your back, metaphorically, is to the offenders and contexts where offences take place. Thus, offenders keep offending, numerous young people continue to be exploited and we all go around and around in circles.

Parents, and Pace are hopeful that the contextual safeguarding approach can change systems and individual practice so that the primary focus of professionals is on the offenders and the locations they operate within, rather than on parenting and the child’s behaviours. Adopting this approach and utilising the RSM when working with families affected by child exploitation, moves child protection systems and practices towards the ‘peg’ fitting the ‘hole’ and, moreover, enables and supports professionals from only having such limited systems to work within when responding to harm outside of the home.

Written by Dr Sarah Lloyd, Trainer and Consultant at Pace

Book on our next Contextual Safeguarding Course with Dr Sarah Lloyd.