Report authors Carlene Firmin, Journal of Children's Geographies, March 2019
The paper draws on:
- Evidence from 20 case reviews and audits of safeguarding practices in 14 local authorities.
- Data collected during observations of multi-agency meetings.
- Across the local authorities, 144 relocations were identified, including moving whole families, taking children into care and school moves.
In the absence of interventions focused on targeting the causes of the extra-familial harm, relocation is being used to break the link between the child and the "unsafe" public spaces they inhabit. However, the findings demonstrate relocation can undermine a child's safety.
Relocations do not address sources of harm, and can undermine protective structures such as relationships with friends, family and professionals. Other research identifies these relationships as important for a child's safety.
Children who face harms in schools, peer groups or community contexts often do not experience comparable risks at home or with their family. For example, most children subjected to criminal exploitation by gangs do not live with criminally-involved families.
Risk is rarely a feature of all relationships a child has. Some have "safe", as well as "risky", peer relationships. Even where all peer relationships are associated to the risks a child faces, some sense of belonging and connection is secured from these friendships. Binary categorisations of risky or safe relationships provide a largely inaccurate account of young people's realities.
When children are relocated, they often returned to their "home" area, remained connected through online contact, and/or formed new, unsafe, relationships in which risks of grooming and exploitation were potent.
The research found relocation compromised emotional wellbeing in two key ways:
- Self-blame - while feelings of self-blame were not solely the consequence of relocation (many young people adopted wider societal narratives of victim-blaming), it did little to undermine those feelings and, to some extent, reinforced the message that the child had contributed to what had happened. Children felt they were being punished by what was intended as "welfare" interventions.
- Loss or reduction of relational safety - the impact relocation had on a child's safety was interwoven with psychological welfare. Relocations created situations of social isolation. Where this was recognised, and professionals attempted to sustain relationships, some of this isolation could be mitigated. However, for the most part, lack of addressing loss of relational security from a child's "home" location in the relocation process created additional risks for psychological safety.
The data presented in this paper provide information about how relocation is used and experienced. It highlights how relocation to get them away from a risk within a public-space can negatively impact on child safety.
In the absence of a national dataset recordinga the number, purpose and outcome of relocation decisions, it is not possible to frame the data presented within a wider national picture. This means the findings cannot be considered as representative of all safeguarding relocations, so firm conclusions cannot be drawn from this article in isolation.
However, the findings should be regarded as providing knowledge on the potential impact of relocations, and highlighting the need for interventions that create safer environments and reduce the need for relocation away from unsafe contexts.
Implications for practice
The challenges presented in this paper largely stem from the fact safeguarding systems primarily designed to protect young children from harm occurring within a family are being applied to interventions where the risk occurs outside of the family.
The research highlights the need for interventions that focus on creating safe environments that negate the need to relocate children.
- Interventions must focus on targeting the causes of risk, and disrupting perpetrator activity and harmful contexts, alongside work to support children and families, and build protective structures around them.
- Current systems and local area processes are not designed to effectively intervene where risk occurs outside of the family, and professionals are not equipped to routinely consider opportunities to intervene effectively.
- Considerations of agency, and the spatial nature of risk, and influences on young people's approaches to navigating unsafe public spaces, provide a foundation for considering how to work alongside, rather than intervene with, children affected by gang exploitation.
- This research does not suggest relocations should never be used - there may be contexts in which levels of risk or harm are so high that the only way a child can be safeguarded is through family relocation. Housing providers, community safety teams and police will be essential partners in this, and all aspects of child safety must be considered in decision-making.
Barnardo's, the UK's leading children's charity, has more than a thousand services. It is seeing increasing numbers of cases of children at risk of multiple dangers, including sexual and criminal exploitation