November 25, 2021 Learning and Reflections, Learning Events, Partnership, Programme Blogs

Slowing down for stronger momentum in tackling child exploitation


Recently, Anna Racher and I co-facilitated a learning event as part of the Tackling Child Exploitation (TCE) Learning Programme. It focused on Joining the Dots, TCE’s framework to help strategic leaders and senior managers tackle child exploitation more effectively.

The Joining the Dots framework was developed through TCE’s work with local area partnerships around the country. It helps make sense of how we can better work together to address child exploitation issues through careful and thoughtful leadership. This blog highlights some of the key themes in those discussions that resonated especially powerfully for me.

Most of us understand that effective partnership working is very important, but effective collaboration really isn’t easy. The opportunity to reflect with a group of colleagues from around the country on the behaviours that can either aid, or abet, effective partnership working was very appealing. Partnership working can be challenging both personally and for organisations. As Ben Byrne commented in his recent TCE blog, ‘It’s not them, it’s us’:

‘...all too often we hold fast to what we know and those to whom we are already closest. (Byrne, TCE, March 2021)       

Ben’s reflections (our event pre-reading) provided an excellent starting point for our conversations: How might we take stronger personal ownership of how we ‘do’ partnership work, to avoid the trap of locating problems elsewhere?

The TCE Joining the Dots framework really concentrates the mind on how we can maximise the positive power of partnerships to promote inclusion, wellbeing and safety. It encourages us to think about how – albeit unwittingly – we may perpetuate and replicate the constantly shifting patterns of control, splitting and separation that characterise the exploitation of children and young people. How, then, can partnerships work to bridge boundaries, to utilise data to invite conversation, and to lead with care and compassion? Through respectful and reflective questioning, partnerships can not only challenge one another but also creatively integrate a wider spectrum of voices and perspectives, for better strategic and operational practice.

There is much contemporary talk about the power of slow thinking (see Daniel Kahneman’s ground-breaking work). Similarly, in the area of child exploitation and extra-familial harm, we are in real need of cultivating notions of ‘slow practice’.  It is easy to be swept along by a sense of urgency and the need to demonstrate action and pace when responding to child exploitation. Speed of response is, of course, crucial: children are being harmed, and tragically sometimes losing their lives, on a daily basis. Frontline practitioners and managers understandably worry, day and night, about what is happening to children. The pressure to act and ‘do’ is reasonable, but it can also overwhelm us to the point where we can end up rushing into, and then getting lost in, action.

Slowing practice down, taking time to get underneath the complexity and constantly changing nature of exploitation, involves a measure of courage and bravery for both practitioners and strategic leaders. For example, the pressure to take children into care and / or move them to another area can be immense. Encouraging multi-agency reflection on the potential disbenefits and alternative solutions is never easy. Similarly, when money has to be quickly spent on relatively short-term projects, sufficient attention may not be paid to whether or not (and how) such interventions might make a difference. Perhaps, therefore, as in food, travel, radio and other life domains, we need to nurture ‘slow practice’ as a means of encouraging more reflective strategy.

How we talk about children and families is very important and is one area where pausing and reflecting can create different ways of working. Language wields power and shapes action in all safeguarding contexts, but it takes on particular significance when talking about exploitation. Different professionals and organisations use terms that may be unclear to others or that mean different things to different people, depending on the agency lens. We often need translators to explain the detail beneath certain terms and meanings, and how they are being used in a particular context.

Language also has the power to lead us unwittingly to collude with binary and victim-blaming ways of thinking and acting (victims vs. perpetrators, safeguarding vs. justice). This can result in what is sometimes referred to as ‘othering’ children in ways that detract from and do not respect either their unique human qualities or their similarities to other children. In a similar vein, the ‘adultification’ of Black children (boys and girls) perpetuates racist stereotypes and dangerously diminishes their needs and rights as young people (see, for example, the NSPCC podcast interview with Jahnine Davis about the experiences of Black girls within child sexual abuse research and practice, 2021). How, then, can we best challenge ourselves to deploy language that is respectful, inclusive and restorative?

We heard at the TCE event of some good examples of practitioners creating space with colleagues to consider and embed using more positive, less punitive language. For example, through multi-disciplinary ‘learning lunches’. In one area, there has been a shift away from undue reliance on traditional child protection conferences, to using a more flexible approach to child safety planning, which can better address extra familial contexts. This led not only to changes in language but also – crucially – to the quality of relationships with children and their families, focusing everyone on minimising and mitigating the risks experienced by children.

Co-location of professionals from different partner organisations can also be a powerful lever for creating the conditions in which conversations sparking creative problem-solving can thrive and flourish. The need for many to work from home during the pandemic has reduced some of these opportunities, raising questions about how co-location might work as part of remote practice.

The need to think inventively – strategically and operationally – was a major theme in the event’s discussion. This will only work if all partners, traditional and non-traditional, are fully engaged and involved in the process. The Joining the Dots framework privileges the importance of creating deeper and broader partnerships that will take risks when innovating or, sometimes, disrupting the status quo. The pandemic evidenced all too well the nimble and adroit way in which perpetrators of exploitation adapt to different situations. Safeguarding and other partnerships need to be similarly ‘fleet of foot’ when addressing child exploitation. 

At the event we heard about an initiative in one local area where partners dispensed with a traditional ‘risk grading’ method and established a less prescriptive, more individually focused approach. Through trial, testing and then tweaking their process, partners had begun to see a discernible impact on the quality of practice. Securing such changes involves creating and nurturing partnerships that are relationally based and invitational in spirit. Whilst some of these initiatives are still developing, there was a view that relationship-based partnerships were much more likely to engender good quality relationships with children and families that are helpful and protective.

As with our personal family relationships and friendships, good partnership working entails trust, respect and give and take. This only works when there is recognition of everyone’s unique expertise and voice, and when there is active investment in building and sustaining partner relationships. We are all very aware of the negative impact of ‘organisational churn’ and of competing agendas and priorities. While we cannot eradicate these challenges, we can invite deeper conversations about them and how they might be mitigated through collaboration.

At the end of the day, it is, of course – as ever – about high-quality system leadership that enables everyone, whatever their role, to contribute. Everyone at the event will have had their own personal ‘takeaways’. An important one for me was a resolve to think further about how the Joining the Dots approach might yield benefits for other safeguarding themes and issues. I’m left reflecting on the questions below, which I hope will be useful more widely:

  • How can we use the ‘Joining the Dots’ approach to reflect on partnership working in the area where we work?
  • How can we best challenge ourselves to use language that is respectful, inclusive and restorative?
  • How are we seeking to involve and share power and influence with children, families, communities and other non-traditional partners?
  • How and when might a ‘slow practice’ approach yield better, and different, ways of working together?

Byrne, B. (2021). ‘It’s not them, it’s us them’: the making of a child exploitation strategy. TCE Support Programme   

Kahneman, D. (2012). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Penguin.    

Davis, J. (2021). Black girls’ experiences of sexual abuse. NSPCC    

Joining the Dots
Our collective knowledge of and understanding of child exploitation is still a developing field. Ideas and examples from across the sector and beyond may help bring a fresh new perspective or unlock a problem. The resources below are part of this rich conversation...
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