Towards a Contextual Response to Peer-on-Peer Abuse: Research and Resources From MsUnderstood Local Site Work 2013-2016

This report presents findings and resources from a three-year review exploring contextual safeguarding responses to children's experiences of "peer-on-peer" abuse.

  • Report authors Carlene Firmin with George Curtis, Danielle Fritz, Paul Olaitan, Lia Latchford, Jenny Lloyd and Ikamara Larasi, September 2016

Contextual Safeguarding is an approach to understanding, and responding to, young people's experiences of significant harm beyond their families. It recognises that the different relationships young people form in their neighbourhoods, schools and online can feature violence and abuse that parents and carers have little influence over, and young people's experiences of extra-familial abuse can undermine parent-child relationships.


Through site work in six locations, this project explored the extent to which local responses to "peer-on-peer" abuse were contextual and holistic. In each site, a programme of work was undertaken with local multi-agency partnerships to audit their responses to peer-on-peer abuse. This resulted in development of action plans with activities designed to enhance or embed existing contextual practice.


Young people's experiences of violence and harmful norms within their peer groups, educational settings and public spaces inform their experiences of peer-on-peer abuse. Yet, the vast majority of identification, assessment and intervention focuses on working with individual young people and families.

Current systems and processes tend to focus on individual manifestations of harm - such as sexual abuse, gang-related violence and domestic abuse - rather than on connections between issues.

Often the same practitioners attend operational and strategic meetings to discuss issues like serious youth violence, domestic abuse and harmful sexual behaviours, but associations between young people being discussed require further recognition, recording and exploration.

Young people affected by different manifestations of harm often attend the same educational provision, knew the same friends or spent time in the same public spaces.

Individual practitioners demonstrated awareness of local contextual risk and peer group dynamics, and some practitioners had implemented contextual approaches such as mapping connections between children.

However, these were not consistently adopted across services, were not reflected in strategic documents and lacked quality assurance.

While some practitioners engaged with peer group and community contexts, this was rarely explicitly drawn upon to address contextual concerns.


Contextual safeguarding approaches appear to offer a framework for addressing criminal exploitation of children, and are worthy of further exploration in shaping policy and practice development. This approach is relatively new and requires further testing. While the research provides useful resources to help create contextual safeguarding practices and processes, the framework and accompanying resources have not yet been fully evaluated.

The project did not have the capacity or information to develop a wholly contextual and holistic response to peer abuse across all structures and services in any given site.

The true effectiveness of the approach remains untested. Ultimately, in order to fully test the effectiveness of contextual safeguarding, a "root-and-branch" application is required.

Implications for practice

  • The approaches recognise the significance of relationships with social spaces, and of reshaping the social contexts in which young people operate (for example, peer groups, schools and neighbourhoods).
  • Contextual approaches are designed to enhance, rather than replace, one-to-one support and therapeutic work with children and families.
  • Responses to extra-familial risk that are not contextual provide for individualised intervention - this is insufficient, as it takes no consideration of the socio-cultural environments associated with extra-familial harm.

Local areas would likely find value in replicating approaches undertaken by the MsUnderstood partnership, to map, enable and enhance holistic contextual responses to safeguarding. The approach and resources to assist with this are presented in the report.

Initiating holistic and contextualised approaches to safeguarding adolescents is likely to involve, but not be limited to:

  • A multi-strand, whole-system approach, comprising a range of well co-ordinated partners across different sectors.
  • "Community safeguarding" involving engagement of a range of partners, and an extension of the notion of "capacity to safeguard" to sectors that operate beyond families - including those who manage and operate services in environments in which harm occurs - for example, housing estates, shopping centres, parks, youths clubs, community safety teams and schools.
  • Improved strategic and operational co-ordination, including:
  • Increasing reference to, and recognition of, holistic and contextual risk, strengths and vulnerability factors in strategic documents across various forms of harm.
  • Enabling links to be made when the same individuals, families, peer groups, schools, or public spaces, are being discussed at different meetings.
  • Improved data collection on contexts associated to public space harm, and profiling analysis to aid understanding of local context.
  • Training activities across agencies in order to equip partners to better identify, prevent, and address harmful behaviours within peer groups.
  • Contextual and holistic referral processes - including mechanisms to aid collection of contextual data on peer-groups, schools and neighbourhoods in referrals, and mechanisms that can receive referrals of groups of children and public space contexts.
  • Contextual and holistic assessment processes - including assessment tools and processes which integrate peer, school and neighbourhood dynamics, and enable responses to address familial, peer, school and neighbourhood dynamics associated with adolescent risk and harm.

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

Read more in CYP Now's Gangs and Criminal Exploitation Special Report

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