Our member, Prof. Michelle Lefevre (University of Sussex, UK), and her co-authors, Prof. Carlene Firmin (Durham University, UK), Dr. Nathalie Huegler (University of Sussex, UK), and Delphine Peace (Durham University, UK), talk about their new book, Safeguarding Young People beyond the Family Home: Responding to Extra-Familial Risks and Harms (Policy Press, 2022).
Research and practice inspections continue to raise concerns regarding pervasive shortcomings in services to young people who encounter and experience risks and harms outside their home and family – such as sexual and criminal exploitation, peer-on-peer abuse, ‘gang’ affiliation, and weapon-enabled violence. It is only relatively recently that the safeguarding implications of these ‘extra-familial risks and harms’ (EFRH) have been recognised.
As a result, social care, youth justice and related agencies are still learning how best to support and protect young people caught up in these dangerous and abusive relationships and environments. In particular, they struggle with young people who have been victimised and who, at the same time, are also victimising others through criminality or abuse.
To help move practice forward, in 2019 we embarked on the Innovate Project, a four-year study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, led by the University of Sussex in partnership with Durham University, Research in Practice, and Innovation Unit. We are currently researching how six local authorities, interagency safeguarding networks and third sector organisations around the UK are developing new service approaches for EFRH.
Prior to this fieldwork, we conducted a rapid evidence review of the international literature to ascertain whether any interventions or whole-system approaches to EFRH had improved practitioner skills or service experiences and outcomes for young people. When writing up the review findings, we were drawn to a book format as this enabled us to situate these findings within a critical consideration of the problematics of contemporary social, cultural, practice and policy contexts for safeguarding and supporting young people beyond the family home. We were grateful to receive the financial support of our universities to publish Open Access, as this means that practitioners – those directly engaged with young people – will be able to draw on the findings to support their practice.
The studies we identified through this review proved to be disparate and diffuse, and there was limited evidence available regarding the effectiveness of specific interventions for EFRH. We subsequently conducted a framework analysis of the body of literature and this enabled us to identify five features commonly found in the more promising practice models and systems:
The book contains chapter on each of these service features, followed by chapters considering how they might be used, in combination, to re-envision services for young people and their families. The book ends looking outwards from the UK to consider any wider generalisability of the findings.
[The following excerpt is from the book’s introduction, which situates the context for practice with EFRH, and begins with a quote from a child safeguarding practice review]
Someone walked into the school, where I was supposed to feel safe, took me away from the people who were supposed to protect me and stripped me naked, while on my period. … On the top of preparing for the most important exams of my life. I can’t go a single day without wanting to scream, shout, cry or just give up. … I feel like I’m locked in a box, and no one can see or cares that I just want to go back to feeling safe again, my box is collapsing around me, and no-one wants to help. … I don’t know if I’m going to feel normal again. I don’t know how long it will take to repair my box. But I do know this can’t happen to anyone, ever again. (Child Q, quoted in Gamble and McCallum, 2022: 11)
In the final stages of writing this book, the voice of Child Q was heard by the UK public. Child Q, a 15-year-old Black young woman from London, experienced significant harm in a place – as she described – where she was supposed to be safe. The people who harmed her were not her parents or carers; they were school staff, who pulled her out of an exam and called the police because they thought she smelled of cannabis and might be carrying drugs, and they were police officers, who strip-searched her and examined her intimate body parts in the school medical room, without an appropriate adult present and while she was menstruating. This professional response appeared to be driven by public safety and criminal justice concerns, with no regard for the welfare implications of Child Q’s possible involvement in offending. There appeared to be no consideration of Child Q’s rights to privacy, nor of the harm that might be caused to her by the professional response – a response that was later constructed as a safeguarding issue by a local child safeguarding practice review instituted to consider this situation (Gamble and McCallum, 2022).
The voice of Child Q brings into focus an issue that UK practitioners, policymakers and families have been grappling with over recent decades: how should professionals, and the systems within which they work, respond to young people who are caught up in criminal, dangerous or harmful contexts and situations involving peers and adults unconnected to young people’s families or homes? The risks and harms that have provoked increasing public attention over the past decade or so have included criminal and sexual exploitation, weapon-enabled violence, sexual harassment and abuse in schools, and abuse in young people’s romantic or intimate relationships (Coy, 2017; Lloyd, 2019; Robinson et al, 2019; National Youth Agency, 2020). For the most part, public attention has been on the nature of such harms themselves, but the extent to which governments and statutory services have failed to address risks and their impacts, and indeed may have even exacerbated, facilitated or created the conditions for these harms to occur, continues to generate substantial concern (Ofsted, 2019; Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel, 2020; McAlister, 2021; Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, 2022).
These ‘extra-familial risks and harms’ (EFRH) are not, by definition, caused by parental abuse, neglect or inadequate parenting, but they still pose a risk of significant harm to young people’s welfare. As a result, they are increasingly being framed, in the UK at least, as safeguarding issues, and social workers are centre stage in developing and coordinating safety plans and protection-oriented interventions (Department of Health, 2017; Her Majesty’s Government, 2018; Scottish Government, 2021; Welsh Government, 2021). Yet, social work roles, and the safeguarding systems in which they are deployed, were not designed with these EFRH in mind; this presents complex challenges for service and policy design. Additional funding has been made available, particularly in England (Department for Education, 2021), to support voluntary and statutory services in innovating more effective responses to these contemporary issues, with a view to safeguarding young people, promoting their welfare and attending to public protection considerations. However, the evidence base for many of these innovations is in its infancy (FitzSimons and McCracken, 2020), and questions remain about the feasibility of offering safeguarding and wider social work responses to risks beyond families. This is further complicated when considering that ‘youth’ and adolescence are increasingly defined as ranging from the early teens to the mid-20s (Sawyer et al, 2018), meaning that in many countries, gaps are likely to exist between child welfare and adult support systems (Holmes and Smale, 2018). Indeed, in this book, we go on to consider system and practice responses to EFRH involving young people from the age of 12 through to 25, as this more inclusive definition reflects how the dynamics of adolescent development and vulnerability to EFRH often continue beyond the age of 18 (Hanson and Holmes, 2014).