Dr Carlene Firmin MBE - Prinicpal Research Fellow, The International Centre

This article forms part of the LGA's Re-thinking local think piece series.

The idea that safeguarding is ‘everybody’s responsibility’ has been a feature of England’s policy landscape for years. But when it comes to safeguarding the welfare of young people who come to harm beyond their homes what does this idea actually mean?

Statutory safeguarding guidance gives us an indication. A range of partner organisations are named as having a role to play in keeping young people safe – including when they experience ‘extra-familial’ forms of harm. They are required to inform children’s services if they are concerned about the welfare of a child. They may be required to attend various meetings to discuss support plans for children and families. They may need to share information about children and families in this process.

These are all important activities. Young people and their families come into contact with a range of agencies – many of whom could support those young people or hold individual pieces to a jigsaw that illustrate the support previously offered to families, or suggest families are in need of further support. When it comes to harm that occurs in schools and public spaces, the statement ‘say something if you see something’ has characterised this type of partnership working. Staff from hotels, transports hubs, shopping centres, youth clubs and community organisations have been trained to sport the signs of exploitation, for example, and have been notified how to alert statutory agencies. In all of this work safeguarding being everybody’s responsibility is translated into activities where everybody: refers concerns about extra-familial harm to children’s services or the police, and; shares information they hold about young people affected by extra-familial harm with partner agencies.

These efforts have not been without challenge.

Numerous debates have surfaced about the thresholds for accessing children’s social care support for young people abused beyond their families but safe within them. Schools, for example, have shared cases where they have referred children who have disclosed experiences of sexual exploitation into children’s social care – and have been told that the child in question hasn’t met a threshold for social work oversight. In such cases sharing information has not led to safeguarding; and referring agencies can be left sceptical about the ability of child protection systems to protect young people in need of help. Such practices demonstrate attempts to safeguard young people but trouble the idea that it is in fact everyone’s responsibility.

It’s everybody’s responsibility to build, and maintain, safe spaces for young people; not simply identify young people who come to harm in such spaces.

On the flip-side some agencies have been accused of over-sharing: with efforts to raise people’s awareness of sexual exploitation, for example, resulting in the increased surveillance of young people and their peers groups without much legal or ethical basis. Young people have been flagged as being associated to ‘gangs’ because they know someone who already is – or live in the same area as them. I have been pressed at meetings, or in public speaking engagements, to clarify whether safeguarding practices that consider young people’s peer relationships risk encroaching on young people’s right to privacy and freedom to associate with peers: rights which are particularly important during the period of adolescent development. Mostly importantly in these situations it becomes apparent that information sharing, regardless of its outcome, can be viewed as an intervention. In reality information sharing can result in no action at all, and in worse case scenarios can result in adverse outcomes for young people who feel over-surveyed and unprotected. In such situations ‘everyone’ can be involved in responses to extra-familial harm – but their efforts don’t lead to safeguarding.

To an extent these tensions are resolved with proportionality: utilising the frameworks already in place to guide the sharing of information, and partnership working, in ways that safeguard the welfare of young people (and in a timely fashion). They are also partly resolved by the growing recognition that young people who come to harm in extra-familial settings, but are relatively safe at home, also require support via social care plans.

However, when it comes to harm beyond homes learning from current research suggests that safeguarding being everybody’s responsibility is more than referrals, information-sharing and the provision of direct services to children and families. None of these actions, on their own builds safety in high streets, transport hubs, parks and other locations where young people come to significant harm. To realise this ambition a range of agencies need to practice in ways that shows it’s everybody’s responsibility to build, and maintain, safe spaces for young people; not simply identify young people who come to harm in such spaces.

Local areas who are piloting a Contextual Safeguarding response to extra-familial harm are developing routes to realise this ambition. Contextual Safeguarding is an approach to responding to abuse beyond families in which the contexts where harm has occurred – peer groups, schools or public places – become the focus of welfare-based assessment and intervention. Through this process children’s social care responses to extra-familial harm broaden beyond children and families to engage with the dynamics of extra-familial contexts which undermine the safety of young people and can disrupt family relationships.

When applying a Contextual Safeguarding framework local partners have had to broaden their focus from assessing a parent’s capacity to protect their child to assessing their collective capacity to offer care and protection. When a child is assaulted at a bus stop, sexually harassed at school or stabbed in a park is it their parent’s capacity to care and protect that is in question? Who could create safety at the bus stop, school or park? Parents absolutely play a central role in supporting, and standing alongside, their children but they cannot affect levels of safety in contexts beyond their front door. They, alongside other residents, can contribute to safety in those settings but they are not in a place to coordinate, or resource, plans needed to safeguard the welfare of multiple children who have come to harm on the same high street.

When it comes to exploitation, and other experiences of harm beyond families, a range of organisations need to assess, and build, their capacity to safeguard the welfare of young people in extra-familial contexts. When they do partnerships are scrutinising the level of ‘guardianship’ available to young people in any given setting. By guardianship I mean access to trusted adults who have a caring investment in young people in that environment and know and understand their safeguarding role. As my colleagues Lauren Wroe and Jenny Lloyd have recently argued, guardianship isn’t achieved by increasing the numbers of adults watching what young people are doing – but instead is about working with young people to build safety in different contexts where they spend their time. By building relationships with young people in extra-familial settings, a range of agencies can play a role in creating environments that are inclusive of young people but hostile to abuse; rather than environments that are made hostile to young people (and seek to dissuade them from spending time there).

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 lockdown more young people will be returning to public spaces where they have been at risk of harm. Some young people have remained in those contexts during the lockdown period – or have been harmed in new, and previously unknown environments. For all these young people we are at a critical moment. How do we build safety, and community guardianship, into transport hubs, fast food restaurants, schools, high streets and parks as many young people return to them? We need to ask ourselves whether we have the collective capacity to achieve this – and identify mechanisms to ensure young people and their wider communities are part of a process in which safeguarding, via safe spaces, is everybody’s responsibility in the future.