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Professor Carlene Firmin


Professor in the Department of Sociology


I am an applied social researcher, concerned with safeguarding young people, social justice and inequality. I have particular expertise in social care responses to abuse between young people and ham in extra-familial spaces and places. In 2015 I founded the concept of 'Contextual Safeguarding' to enhance practice and policy in this area.

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. 

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 that enable the use of Contextual Safeguarding in practice.

My approach

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.

Speaking engagements

Over 500 public engagement including:

  • Invited Keynote (2022) RCPCH and the Young Person's Health Special Interest Group (YPHSIG) 2022 Global Adolescent Conference: Contextual safeguarding: recalibrating child welfare responses to abuse beyond families and its impact
  • Invited Keynote (2022) Kempe Center's 2022 International Virtual Conference: What lies beneath: contextualising child welfare in the midst of structural harm
  • Invited Keynote (2022) JSWEC Social Work Education and Research Annual Conference 2022: Contextual Safeguarding: Centering Social Justice in Social Work Responses to Extra-Familial Harms
  • (2021) Invited keynote: Association of Child Protection Professionals Conference on Exploitation, UK
  • (2021) Invited keynote, Context Matters, International Sexual Violence Symposium, University of the Sunshine Coast
  • (2019) Invited keynote, East Asia Regional Council of Schools Annual Conference, Malaysia
  • (2018) Invited panel member, evidence session on social norms, Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, UK
  • Premier League, Annual Safeguarding Conference, Keynote Address (2018)
  • (2017) Invited speaker, ANZATSA Biannual conference, University of Auckland, New Zealand
  • (2017) Griffith University, Brisbane, Research Colloquium: Contextualising Child Protection: Reforming safeguarding systems to address peer-abuse in the UK
  • (2016) BSA Bourdieu Conference; A three stage application of Bourdieu to develop responses to peer-on-peer abuse
  • (2016, 2017) Invited keynote: Ofsted annual conference
  • (2015) Invited keynote, NOTA annual Conference
  • (2015, 2017) Invited keynote, Youth Justice Board annual conference
  • (2013) Invited panel member, roundtable with Deputy Prime Minister, Violence against Women and Girls, UK
  • (2010) UK representative for Women’s National Commission, Workshop, United Nations CEDAW Convention, US
  • (2015) Ofsted Annual Children’s Social Care Conference – Keynote Address
Teaching and supervision

I currently convene the Social Work in Practice module for, in addition to acting as a tutor and dissertation supervisor for students on, the Durham Social Work Masters; as well as providing guest lectures in to criminology and sociology students. 

I collaborate with other researchers from across the world who share my interests. If you are interested in undertaking a PhD under my supervision, I would be delighted to hear from you directly about your ideas and to discuss opportunities to work with you at Durham. A list of my current PhD supervisees is included below (see section entitled 'supervises'). Their projects are diverse and range from work on peer influence during adolescent, racism and school cultures, social work responses to extra-familial harm in the UK and internationally, and colourism in the UK.

  • 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

I also convene a monthly reading and discussion group for post-graduate researchers interested in Contextual Safeguarding. If you'd like to join please get in contact.

Research interests

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

Esteem Indicators

  • 2022: Co-Convener: Social Work and Adolescents, Special Interest Group, European Social Work Research Association (ESWRA):
  • 2022: Adjunct Member: Sexual Violence Research and Prevention Unit, University of the Sunshine Coast:
  • 2022: Advisory Council Member: Churchill Fellowship:
  • 2022: Member: NIHR selection committee for Predoctoral Local Authority Fellowship scheme:
  • 2022: Member: National Youth Agency Strategic Safeguarding Advisory Panel:
  • 2021: Member: Association of Professors of Social Work:
  • 2021: Member: Black Female Professors Forum:
  • 2020: Editorial Board, Child and Family Social Work:
  • 2019: Convener: Contextual Safeguarding Academics Network:
  • 2019: Reviewer: Child Abuse and Neglect, Children and Society, Journal of Youth Services, Justice Quarterly, Sexual Abuse:
  • 2019: Associate Editor, Child Abuse Review:
  • 2019: Sector Reviewer: Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse; CSA Centre for Expertise; NSPCC; Research in Practice:
  • 2017: Editorial Board, Safer Communities:
  • 2017: Board of Trustees: NOTA: 2017- present:


Authored book

Chapter in book

Journal Article

Supervision students