Child exploitation is everyone’s business – contextual safeguarding can help.

By Claire Bethel

Child sexual exploitation (CSE) had a high profile following the public outcry which ensued from the widespread abuse in places such as Rochdale, Rotherham and Oxford. This led to significant changes on the back of Professor Alexis Jay’s report into the handling of CSE in Rotherham in 2014.  Her report brought to light the previously unknown scale of the problem, estimating that at least 1,400 children in Rotherham experienced CSE over a number of years, largely ignored by those responsible for their care and protection. The response – alongside the work of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, also chaired by Alexis Jay – has included a far greater focus on CSE. Whereas previously, child sexual abuse was viewed as largely a familial problem, the exploitation of children by perpetrators outside the family including groups and gangs, as well as by their peers, has commanded far wider recognition. 

One of the ways in which the traditional approach to children’s safeguarding has changed has been the move towards contextual safeguarding, bringing recognition of the increasing complexity of this landscape. Contextual safeguarding takes account of the fact that, as young people develop, they are influenced by a range of environments and people outside their family including their peers and their online lives. Many local authorities now have complex safeguarding teams which recognise the risks posed by influences outside the home environment. A great deal of resources are consumed by children and young people who go missing, often repeatedly, with much police and children’s social care activity focused on finding and returning them. One benefit of the changing approach and culture is a reduction in the level of victim-blaming and punitive nature of the responses previously associated with CSE. Services – not least the police – are becoming more trauma-informed, trained to recognise the wider context of a young person’s life, the underlying causes of their actions (including Adverse Childhood Experiences) and the opportunities for recovery. 

Increasingly, CSE is seen in the wider context of Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE) with the pervasive risks posed by county lines now seen as a major component of serious crime, involving sometimes quite young children in criminality, more often than not linked to drugs and trafficking. CSE of the type seen in Rotherham and Rochdale seems to be less prevalent given the increased surveillance, with other forms of extra-familial abuse, including peer-on-peer abuse, online abuse and other forms of harmful sexual behaviour, more widely identified.  

The implementation of contextual safeguarding, pioneered by Dr Carlene Firmin at the University of Bedford[1], includes working both at the level of the individual child or young person using techniques such as peer group mapping to look at their contacts and influences, and at the level of the community. Multi-agency safeguarding groups work collaboratively with the local community, including businesses such as hotels and taxi firms – indeed any organisation that comes into contact with children or young people – to establish the potential danger points in the community and to come up with responses collectively. Improving the lighting in the local playground where young people hang out at night or putting CCTV in place in the stairwell in the block of flats where young people are at risk from gangs illustrate what can be done.

Whole-school approaches and peer group work can be particularly helpful in addressing problems in school-aged children with the potential for bystander interventions to address peer-generated abuse and issues such as inappropriate image sharing. Safeguarding is, rightly, seen as everybody’s business rather than a familial problem confined to the home. Parents – frequently seen in the past as the cause of the problem – are increasingly seen as key to the solution and as partners in the team around the child or young person, representing a seismic cultural shift for social workers.  

Some of our work in this area has included working with voluntary sector organisations and local authorities to help them understand the changing nature of the problem and to look at what steps need to be taken to deliver contextual safeguarding and address the growing problem of child criminal exploitation. This presents several challenges: not least, challenges for the workforce to understand the implications for professional practice and the overriding need to work collaboratively with other agencies, and the practical challenges of adapting council information systems geared towards meeting the needs of individual children or young people at risk of harm.

Children and young people affected by exploitation need holistic, flexible, child-centred, trauma-informed, non-stigmatising services delivered by practitioners who can provide a consistent response as and when – and where –  the young person is ready to receive it. We also need to ensure that we don’t focus so much on child criminal exploitation that we downplay the needs of children and young people who have experienced child sexual abuse or exploitation, including online abuse, who continue to require specialist interventions by skilled practitioners.

If you would like to know more about how RedQuadrant could help you to deliver contextual safeguarding in your area, contact

Claire Bethel