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Traditional child protection work has focused on working with children and young people within the context of the family, but the family can become less influential over a young person once they begin secondary school. Contextual safeguarding refers to safeguarding in places, situations and relationships outside of the family. The contextual approach stresses that we must look closely and explicitly at the context in the lives of children and young people. Churches can often be in a good place to be involved in contextual safeguarding because of their children and youth work, and also their links with the wider local community.

Working in partnership

Once children get to a certain age, they may be vulnerable to abuse or exploitation from people outside their families. These extra-familial problems can appear at school, from within peer groups, or online. Children and youth workers cannot monitor and dictate the lives of young people. However, the local church can often support young people by partnering with other organisations in their local community. They can develop ties with local authorities, social workers, youth workers, schools, community leaders, police and other churches. Many churches come into contact with these organisations in a number of ways. For example, many churches host Foodbanks and debt advice centres. These are areas where churches can develop contacts with local authorities, social workers and the police. These can happen through the church safeguarding team making a referral, or when the relevant authorities make contact with the church to help support someone.

Where is there a gap your church could fill?

In June 2019 Rev Canon Dr Rosemarie Mallett vicar of St Johns, Angell Town, Brixton and a campaigner against knife crime, suggested churches consider opening between 3pm and 6pm to offer safe havens to young people feeling vulnerable on the streets. In July, the General Synod said that churches should play a key role in combating serious youth violence in their communities.

Churches could find out what their local authority is doing and ask how they can be engaged and help. Many police areas have local community safety groups that churches can get involved with. One church member set up a play area in the corner of a GP surgery waiting room to support young mums. Another worked in a prison visitor centre, again setting up a play area for children who may have travelled long distances for a visit, creating safe spaces for parents to chat.

Church youth groups may have members who get suspended or excluded from school. It could be possible for the youth workers to arrange some safe spaces and some people to support them during that time. If a young person runs away from home, or gets kicked out of home and is sofa surfing, this creates immediate vulnerability. Church leaders and youth leaders could be on the lookout to respond quickly, for example creating an emergency safety plan around such a situation to bring into play.

Encourage churches to do what they do well

Many churches have areas where they are supporting children and young people in their lives outside the church. It is important to acknowledge and encourage people who are doing good work already in these areas. Support and encourage your members whose professional work is in schools, nurseries, youth work, or the police. Help them to talk freely if they want to about the pressures they face.

The 2019 Children’s Commissioner report said: “The single most important thing is for them (young people) to have a relationship with at least one trusted adult who can help divert them away from gangs and access other services.” Church members who come from different walks of life can pass their wisdom on to the younger generations in their churches. In parts of church life, such as toddler groups, kids’ groups on a Sunday morning, or Friday evening youth groups, church workers and leaders can give messages about how to make wise, safer choices. These times spent with young people are where to share guidelines about socially positive behaviours and model safe ways to deal with disagreement and conflict. It is also a place to support parents in their role of building self-esteem, security, acceptance. Many youth groups have discussions around the real-world issues that they will be facing in secondary school life. It is also helpful to share with parents the value of doing this – if they can discuss knife crime, drugs, self-harm, social media or bullying, in a safe space in the church, then they will be more equipped to live safely among their peers.

Churches and gangs

Church youth groups may come into contact with young people who may be beginning to associate with gangs. It is important not to overreact, as not all young people who sometimes hang around on a street corner in a group are in a gang. But it can be helpful to be aware in case it develops further or to be aware of people on the edge of that group who may be vulnerable to being groomed by an actual gang. The reasons for the pull of gangs is that a young person is vulnerable and these vulnerabilities will have roots from years earlier. Don’t wait until they get arrested or drop out of the church – act at the first signs of problems, as well as doing preventative work. A good way for youth workers to help prevent children from getting involved in a gang is by talking openly about gangs, finding out what children think about gangs and warning them of the dangers of becoming involved. 

Be part of the answer

Preventative work is far more effective than reactive efforts in keeping young people safe. Sometimes Christians can wait for others to do things for them. During the story of the feeding of the five thousand, the disciples tried to send people away, however, Jesus said: “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” The church is often in a good position to help support and protect young people and provide contextual safeguarding. The work a church does for the wider local community is noticed by those outside the church and can show them an important message about what the church believes.

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