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Prof Carlene Firmin


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Professor in the Department of Sociology  


I am an applied social researcher, concerned with safeguarding young people, social justice and inequality. I founded the concept of ‘Contextual Safeguarding’ and have particular expertise in the field of social care responses to violence and abuse that occurs between young people or in extra-familial spaces and places.

I joined the Department of Sociology at Durham University in 2021. Prior to this I developed the Contextual Safeguarding research programme at the University of Bedfordshire for eight years. Before joining academia, I spent over ten years in voluntary and statutory agencies, researching young people’s experiences of community and group-based violence and advocating for comprehensive social care and wider safeguarding approaches that keep young people safe in public places, schools and peer groups.

As my publications demonstrate, I have designed and used Contextual Safeguarding as a theoretical and operational framework to draw attention to, and address, the social and cultural contexts in which extra-familial abuse occurs. By working with experts in child protection law, public health, criminology, psychology and education to develop multi-disciplinary, I have used research to change how safeguarding systems respond when young people come to harm. 

Theory: Since 2011 I have developed, and then tested, the Contextual Safeguarding conceptual framework. The framework is principally built on Bourdieu’s social theory, and applies the concepts of field, capital and habitus to forms of extra-familial harm, and associated social care responses. As the framework has been applied I have also utilised structural and social theories of child protection, ecological theories of human development, public health theories of harm reduction and theories of situational crime prevention to critique and reimagine social work responses to extra-familial harm.

Method: my research draws upon, and contributes to, two qualitative research methods. I have used case file review methods since 2011 to understand social work responses to extra-familial harm; gradually developing a contextual case review method that has informed both individual case review and macro-analysis of serious case reviews and domestic homicide reviews. I have also worked with colleagues to develop a multi-method approach to building case studies of local organisational responses to extra-familial harm; first auditing current practice and then co-creating new practice approaches. This work has involved embedded research methods including meetings observations, reflective workshops and whole-system review sessions to track system-change at an organisational level across multiple years.

Application: my work has been applied in children’s social care departments, schools and voluntary sector organisations to redesign how they approach extra-familial harm. Nationally it has been integrated into child protection policy frameworks in England, Wales and Scotland. Whole-organisation application of the Contextual Safeguarding framework is being tested (or in development) in multiple sites tests in the UK, Europe and Australia. Thousands of practitioners are working with my colleagues and me, in research test sites and via virtual practice networks, to understand the implications of the CS framework for policymakers, practitioners, young people and families. In 2020, I convened the Contextual Safeguarding Academics Network (CSAN) to bring together researchers and lecturers who use the CS Framework, and in 2019 I established the Contextual Safeguarding Local Area Interest Network (LAIN), to connect strategic leads across children’s services departments with an interest in the topic. Contextual Safeguarding has also been used to design the methods for over 20 case reviews to identify opportunities for intervening with extra-familial forms of significant harm.

I am committed to applied, accessible and usable research. Over the course of my career I have used research to inform the development of safeguarding and child protection policies; including statutory guidance and funding programmes. Moreover, I have worked with research colleagues, practitioners and young people to co-create knowledge, recommendations and toolkits and enable the use of Contextual Safeguarding in practice.

Within these specific areas of research, I welcome students interested in pursuing a dissertation or post-doctoral research.

  • Social work responses to adolescents
  • Social work responses to extra-familial harm
  • Child protection legal frameworks and adolescent welfare
  • Situational, social, structural and relational drivers of harm in adolescence
  • The application of Bourdieu to social services
  • Distance, secure and out-of-home care in response to extra-familial harm
  • Contextual outcomes and impact measures
  • Peer support and group behaviour during adolescence
  • Case study and case review methodologies
  • Sociological approaches to network and route analysis

Research interests

  • •Social work responses to adolescents
  • •Social work responses to extra-familial harm
  • •Child protection legal frameworks and adolescent welfare
  • •Situational, social, structural and relational drivers of harm in adolescence

Esteem Indicators

  • Board of Trustees: Hibiscus: 2012-2015 : 2012-2015
  • Board of Trustees: NOTA: 2017- present:
  • Board of Trustees: Prison Reform Trust: 2014-2018: 2014-2018


Authored book

  • Firmin, C. (2020). Contextual safeguarding and child protection: Rewriting the rules.
  • Firmin, C. & Hancock, D. (2017). Profiling CSE: Building a contextual picture of a local problem.
  • Firmin, C. (2016). Criminal gangs, male-dominated services and the women and girls who fall through the gaps.
  • Firmin, C. & Beckett, H. (2014). Child sexual exploitation.
  • Firmin, C. (2014). MsUnderstood: The benefits of engaging young women in antiviolence work.
  • Firmin, C. (2013). Busting the ‘gang-rape’ myth: Girls’ victimisation and agency in gang-associated sexual violence.
  • Firmin, C. (2013). Criminal gangs, male-dominated services and the women and girls who fall through the gaps.
  • Firmin, C. (2013). Something old or something new: Do pre-existing conceptualisations of abuse enable a sufficient response to abuse in young people's relationships and peer-groups?.

Journal Article

  • Preston, O., Godar, R., Lefevre, M., Boddy, J. & Firmin, C. (2021). Considerations in the use of local and national data for evaluating innovation in children’s social care. Journal of Children's Services 16(3): 233-248.
  • Firmin, C. (2020). Child Protection and Contexts of Recognition. Child Abuse Review 29(2): 91-96.
  • Firmin, C. (2020). School rules of (sexual) engagement: government, staff and student contributions to the norms of peer sexual-abuse in seven UK schools. Journal of Sexual Aggression 26(3): 289-301.
  • Firmin, C. (2019). From genograms to peer group mapping: Introducing peer relationships into social work assessment and intervention. Families, Relationships and Societies 8(2): 231-248.
  • Firmin, C. (2019). Relocation, relocation, relocation: home and school-moves for children affected extra-familial risks during adolescence. Children's Geographies
  • Firmin, C. & Abbott, M. (2018). A route to safety: Using bus boarding data to identify roles for transport providers within contextual safeguarding systems. Children and Society 32(5): 381-392.
  • Firmin, C. (2018). Contextual Risk, Individualised Responses: An Assessment of Safeguarding Responses to Nine Cases of Peer-on-Peer Abuse. Child Abuse Review 27(1): 42-57.
  • Firmin, C. (2018). Contextualizing case reviews: A methodology for developing systemic safeguarding practices. Child and Family Social Work 23(1): 45-52.
  • Firmin, C., Warrington, C. & Pearce, J. (2016). Sexual exploitation and its impact on developing sexualities and sexual relationships: The need for contextual social work interventions. British Journal of Social Work 46(8): 2318-2337.
  • Firmin, C. (2009). Girls around gangs. Safer Communities 8(2): 14-16.

Supervision students