The value of safety planning

Joanne Parkes
Thursday, January 4, 2024

Dr Carlene Firmin has highlighted the complex challenges practitioners face when supporting children and young people affected by extra-familial harm through her development of contextual safeguarding since 2016.

A multi-agency safety plan is a key part of the response to children at risk of abuse and exploitation. Picture: Fizkes/AdobeStock
A multi-agency safety plan is a key part of the response to children at risk of abuse and exploitation. Picture: Fizkes/AdobeStock

Typical child protection systems often do not work when supporting children and young people at risk of exploitation by others, whether peers or adults.

Dr Firmin’s contextual safeguarding framework has become embedded and utilised within statutory guidance nationally, although there is still much to learn and to implement as local authorities pivot to this new way of working. The approach supports practitioners in directly working with children, young people, their families, and wider communities. A main tenet of this work is safety planning.

Lack of practical support

Sean Monaghan, founder of Safer Now, a safeguarding consultancy organisation that draws strongly on Dr Firmin’s research, echoes concerns that there is not enough practical support offered to children, young people and their families and wider communities whilst experiencing exploitation. Monaghan says: “All too often, when working with families, we hear professionals using phrases such as ‘Why didn't you just run?’ and, ‘You could have called the police - why didn't you?’ This can feel like blame on the young person and is not conducive to promoting their safety through practical planning."

Firmin and her team’s analysis of 49 serious case reviews that were carried out between 2010 and 2020, found that “social work responses to extra-familial contexts appeared crime-focused, emergent and, in their infancy”. Case reviews identified contexts where young people were at risk of extra-familial harm, but interventions were “largely absent”, she says, cautioning that a further study envisaged in 2028 - a decade after the change in statutory guidance - may see different results due to a developed understanding and implementation of safety planning, alongside other things.

The Safer Now approach

Safer Now delivers and supports practitioners across a breadth of agencies and organisations in understanding, building, and creating practical safety plans for children, young people and their families who might be at risk of violence, exploitation, and other extra-familial harm. This is done through practical workshops, bespoke supervision, and reflective case discussions with members of the community concerned.

A case Monaghan consulted on involved a 17-year-old on a child protection plan who was being exploited to sell drugs from a “cuckooed property”, whose organisation was tasked with upskilling professionals in safety planning. A raft of professionals including a social worker and a specialist police officer were involved in the teenager’s case “whilst the young person was being exploited”, says Monaghan, adding that the young person was too fearful to disclose the location of the property.

“For many exploited young people, they feel their situation could always be worse, and at times, has the potential to be made worse through professional actions, as those actions can bring additional contextual risk,” he says. Despite the serious challenges of the case, there was a breakthrough. “This young person wanted support in considering how to find moments, or increments, of safety while in this property,” he says, adding that through much discussion over several weeks, "a plan was formulated”.

How to safety plan

Practical safety planning is completed by asking descriptive and reflective questions to help the young person assess the options available should an incident arise while present in that property.

“Admitting to ourselves as practitioners that we at times must sit with the risk, as clearly the young person has no other choice, enables us to think about what tangible steps we can take to support them, beyond the norm," says Monaghan. "A well considered safety plan is certainly one of those steps. The practitioner is more of a facilitator than a deviser and implementer of that plan. It is also important to embed trauma-informed approaches within this plan, so that we do not leave space for blame and shame.”

Monaghan adds: “Safety planning in its usual form is often conducted by a group of professionals and provided to the young person and family, often feeling like a set of rules to abide by, which can of course feel punitive to a family doing everything they can to safeguard themselves. This is not the way it should be done for a person centred, contextually informed approach.”

Safer Now offers practitioner training on safety planning via a one-day workshop and a first-of-its-kind practitioners handbook, which can be found here.


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