Getting to grips with the concept of transitional safeguarding

What comes to mind most readily and vividly when you recall your experiences of moving towards adulthood between the ages of 16-24? How did you seek out support when you needed it? Who were your main points of contact? What did you want from the adults around you? How did any services you accessed treat you?

Many of us might have to work quite hard to think about how to answer these questions as our journey from adolescence to young adulthood might have been quite seamless and straightforward. In contrast there will be other readers of this blog for whom their transitional (adolescent to adult) experiences were more turbulent and complicated.

Whatever our response, what is without doubt is that we all have our own distinct experiences to recall and hence will give unique answers to these questions. So, first and foremost, we suggest that professionals should resist any temptation to reduce understandings of this transitional space to a homogeneous social phenomenon.

That said, there is a growing awareness, accelerated by the innovative work of Research in Practice, of the need for statutory and voluntary sector services and systems to find ways to address this critical transitional phase in our human development in general, and more specifically and urgently, in the lives of young people facing, what we are referring to as, complex safeguarding risks – such as criminal and sexual exploitation, radicalisation and gang affiliation, to name a few.

Our research is seeking to better understand the nature of innovation in the area of transitional safeguarding services and practices for young people facing extra-familial risks in their lives.

Starting from an experiential standpoint, as this blog has, and inviting the reader into a (most probably) retrospective engagement with their transitional journey seems helpful to us as it ensures we are mindful from the outset of the power of assumptive behaviours, of the inclination we all have to simplify, pigeonhole and label social phenomena and behaviours. Making sense of these instinctive responses requires us to pay attention to the impact of anxiety-provoking matters on our thought processes and actions.

The ground breaking work in this field of project colleagues Michelle Lefevre and Kristi Hickle on ‘both/and’ thinking has been influential in the design of this project, bringing to the fore, as it does, the dangers of binary – ‘either/or’ – thinking. So, for example, it can feel almost impossible for professionals to hold in mind that a young person can occupy, simultaneously, the positions of both ‘vulnerable victim in need of protection’ and of ‘agentic rights bearer’. They can and should be enabled to participate in the creation of their own safeguarding plans and might even choose to withdraw (temporarily or long term) from such plans and not participate.

Engaging with innovation in the field of transitional safeguarding requires us to ‘sit lightly’ with our binary responses and be open to uncertainty and unfamiliarity. We need to resist the urge to resolve situations too quickly, by adopting Bion’s concept of ‘negative capability’ – tolerating the pain and confusion of ‘not knowing’ when in challenging and ambiguous situations and resisting oversimplifying complexity. These mindsets are not easy to achieve in the outcome driven, New Public Management-constrained landscape of welfare provision, but they are vital if professional services and organisational systems are to be ‘fit for purpose’ and respectful of the challenges young people are facing.

Innovation must be undertaken inclusively: engaging all stakeholders in a collaborative endeavour and encompassing all our ways of knowing – intellectual, affective, embodied. Only then will we be able to ensure innovation is in the best interests of those it is designed to safeguard and support. As our research evolves, we look forward to sharing how our thinking is being shaped and developed and how we are responding collaboratively to the challenges encountered along the way.


Gillian Ruch