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This briefing is an overview of Contextual Safeguarding which is set out in the revised government statutory guidance Working together to safeguard children 2018, paragraph 33 – 37


Contextual safeguarding (CS)  as it is known in the UK represents a recently developed child protection framework. With an emphasis on the nature of extra familial risk, Contextual Safeguarding shifts the child protection emphasis to include family dynamics as well as peer relations, schools and environment.  Contextual Safeguarding in this respect is based upon deepening services’ understanding of the subtext of these environmental factors. As such CS is not necessarily about the causes, but symptoms of access to care and ultimately prison.

Contextual Safeguarding seeks to understand the power of group dynamics and how such dynamics are corroded by learned behaviours that can centre on violence, retribution, honour and respect. The context aspect of safeguarding moves away from a more broad brush approach and in particular seeks to develop a better understanding of how vulnerable children and young people and in particular boys and young men can and are often diverted to that which offers ‘more’ than parental guidance.  This is not however to deny the impact that peer relations have on vulnerable young women and girls. CS, in point of fact seeks to develop a better awareness/understanding of how gender affects and impacts upon the formation of peer relations.

Defining Contextual Safeguarding.

Research fellow at University of Beds and architect of Contextual Safeguarding Carlene Firmin,  offers this definition:

Contextual Safeguarding is an approach to understanding, and responding to, young people’s experiences of significant harm beyond their families. It recognises that the different relationships that young people form in their neighbourhoods, schools and online can feature violence and abuse. Parents and carers have little influence over these contexts, and young people’s experiences of extra-familial abuse can undermine parent-child relationships. Therefore children’s social care practitioners need to engage with individuals and sectors who do have influence over/within extra- familial contexts, and recognise that assessment of, and intervention with, these spaces are a critical part of safeguarding practices. Contextual Safeguarding, therefore, expands the objectives of child protection systems in recognition that young people are vulnerable to abuse in a range of social contexts.

(Firmin 2017)

The Context of Contextual Safeguarding.

Contextual Safeguarding (CS) is profoundly driven by improving practitioner understanding and awareness of the social issues rooted in peer relations and community. As such contextual safeguarding requires a strong awareness of the factors that inform and influence anything from risky to harmful behaviours.  What for example are the extra familial risk factors for a 14 year old living at home who has been excluded from school? What are the extra familial risk factors for a 12 year old with tendencies towards violent behaviours? It is these context issues that the CS framework is based upon.

The following case example demonstrates the relationship between context and safeguarding

Dean is groomed by a street gang in his neighbourhood to traffic drugs across the country. He is approached by them when hanging-out with his friends at a local take-away food shop. The influence of those who have groomed him means that Dean doesn’t come home when his parents ask him to and stops answering their calls while running drugs. Slowly Dean’s parents lose control of him and when they try to lock him in the house he physically attacks his mother to get out. Dean is one of six peers who have all been approached at the take-away shop for the purposes of drug trafficking.

Within a Contextual Safeguarding model the risk in Dean’s neighbourhood, and the group who have groomed him, appear to be more influential than his parents. Addressing this issue may in turn address the challenges that Dean is facing at home – whereas intervening with Dean’s family is unlikely to impact the risks he is facing in the community. Strategically the safeguarding partnership is made aware of the trend associated to the take-away shop, a street gang, six young men and the issue of drugs trafficking and work together to design a plan for disrupting risk in that context (and thereby safeguard all six young men affected by it). At this stage Contextual Safeguarding offered a framework to shape the development of policy and practice models for safeguarding young people affected by extra-familial risks. The framework needed to be applied in order to identify the resources, structures and partnerships required to bring the model to life and test its usability.

(Firmin 2018)

Practice Issues

Contextual Safeguarding has powerful implications not only for social care but also for agencies such as education, police and the charity sector.  As such CS requires a realignment of agencies working together to the best interests of vulnerable young people. The presence of for example ‘county lines’ (see tri.x briefing on county lines) strongly demonstrates the practice implications of working to a CS framework .

Signs of Safety, Relational Working and CS.

The presence of CS sits alongside other child protection initiatives of which Signs of Safety (SoS) is the most prevalent. Contextual Safeguarding offers workers an opportunity to extend and engage with wider social issues that may not immediately be present in families but are affecting family dynamics. Signs of Safety  offers a similar analysis insofar as it focusses on a ‘whole community’ approach for positive outcomes. Developed by Hilary Cottam, Relational Working places the emphasis on the quality of professional relationships between service user and service provider.  This again requires an understanding of not only risk but the context in which the risk is taking place.

Safeguarding, Roles and Responsibilities

The development of a framework such as CS raises questions of roles and responsibilities and requires a revisiting of the ‘capacity for safeguarding’ as it impacts key agencies. Schools for example will play a key role in the delivery of CS. In turn the relationship between agencies is likely to be affected when working to a CS brief. That safeguarding is currently considered a joint responsibility bodes well for the implementation of CS. The creation of ‘safe spaces’ requires a strong awareness and appreciation of local community and intelligence sharing. For example the community centre worker who is aware of extra familial risk to the vulnerable person becomes a key player in CS.


Contextual Safeguarding represents an analysis, framework and practice tool.  It’s development must be seen within the wider context of gang violence, ‘county lines’, knife crime and how these trends are affecting rates of care proceedings, youth mental health and ultimately incarceration. It also represents a powerful recognition that it is the extra familial that is adversely affecting young people in ways that families themselves find difficult to contain and manage.

Reconstruct have developed a new training programme on Contextual Safeguarding. This one day course offers practitioners the context, definition and case examples of how to effectively apply contextual safeguarding into practice.

For more information please contact us on 01895 549910 or email us:

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