The Contextual Safeguarding Network – A Safer Approach to Child Protection

 

TW: Child abuse, rape culture

 

This morning, Brian Mair, of Nudge Education, sent out a link to a website and I wasn’t prepared for the shift in thinking that was about to occur. The Contextual Safeguarding Network are working very hard on researching the ways in which children and young people experience abuse, and are focussing on how professionals and communities can use this information to increase protection in young people’s peer groups, schools and neighbourhoods.

Dr Carlene Firmin speaks in this TEDx Talk about the dire need for reform in the way that we contextualise abuse. The most prominent vein that stuck out to me was this. Our current system of child protection is built on the premise of focusing on the child, which is partly because the system was ‘“only ever designed to protect children from the harm they face in their families”.

Dr Firmin points to plenty of evidence that supports this argument throughout the talk but the one that stuck out to me the most was that there are “soft messages in the curriculum that focussed on children not sending sexual images of themselves, that young people then translated as being ‘well if you share an image of yourself and someone else shares it to a thousand people, it’s your fault’”. Victim blaming is endemic in the UK and it’s easy to see why when this is the messaging being absorbed by young people. 

Where is the conversation about assertive consent? Why are we still accepting that bra-pinging and upskirting happens in school corridors? “Boys will be boys” is no longer an excuse. There are few convincing arguments left for separate male and female brains that would support this kind of ‘caveman’ behaviour being hardwired (see Testosterone Rex by Cordelia Fine; a different blog piece entirely).

We often say that context is key. A culture exists that allows this behaviour to continue unchallenged because the children it is happening to are focussed on, rather than the context in which, the abuse is happening. 

The Contextual Safeguarding Network underlines a four-step approach towards better safety for children and young people:

1. The system needs to be able to target the context in which the abuse has occurred.

Dr Firmin shares a story of abuse happening in context. When the victim and the perpetrators are removed from the context, the abuse continues to happen in the same way with different children because the main risk factor (the safety of the location where the abuse took place) has not been addressed. 

2. We must do this through the lens of child protection, focussing on place-based risk.

We already see this in policing. When there are complaints in an area, the number of police usually increases. But Dr Firmin takes this one step further and says that, through the lens of child protection, we should be thinking about making places safer, thereby reducing the risk for young people and not solely thinking about ‘targeting crime’ in isolation.

3. We must develop partnerships beyond those currently represented.

Dr Firmin states that children and young people are most vulnerable between 3.30 and 7pm. She advocates for including anybody who has contact with children in this network of support. This is a social solution to a problem, empowering the community to support safer spaces for young people.

4. Success should be measured by not just a change in the child’s behaviour but also a change of their behaviour in context.

This last point is crucial. Context is key. The story that Dr Firmin uses to demonstrate this point is distressing. The measures put in place to target the perceived risk (the student being persistently late and therefore jeopardising their education) make the young person more vulnerable to targeted abuse from their peers.

 

This messaging couldn’t have come at a more important time when, nationally, women and girls are more aware of their personal safety than ever and the same old rhetoric about taking actions to protect yourself from harm is trotted out. It is unsurprising, then, that the child protection system as it stands also leans towards reinforcing this narrative of focussing on the victim to solve their problem. 

“We don’t assess the location where the abuse occurred, we assess the child that was abused there. As if by understanding that child, we will be able to magic the abuse away”, says Dr Firmin. Abusers are able to act in certain contexts more than others because of the risk factors affecting those specific contexts. We must make moves to include addressing those risk factors in our approach to combatting child abuse, rather than continuing to focus on the child and their family in isolation in order to prevent history from repeating itself.

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