The Cultural Challenges of Abuse and Safeguarding for those Working in the Youth Workforce

Cultural aspects of working with abuse, are often presented as about the challenges of working with specific sub-groups of people and THEIR culture. We will be discussing that issue later in this module but, here, I wish to turn the spotlight on the culture of those who work with youth. Common debates one is likely to hear in general society around abuse, often focus on the cruelty of the abuser, the possible impact upon victims and what ‘authorities’ are doing to prevent abuse or prosecute abusers. However, there is a more sinister issue often visible in media or social discussions on abuse, and this can be seen in the common focus upon how guilty or innocent the abused person is deemed to be for their abuse. Sheila Kitzinger (2004) has written about representations of abuse and how these often rely on particular narratives (sets of shared stories or common social ideas) that we would probably all recognise. We can see some of these type of cultural ideas bound up in terms such as, ‘innocent victim’, which suggests that there are other victims who are not innocent. In other situations, cultural ideas that blame survivors of abuse can try to explain what happened by the survivors experience, for example, “why didn’t he just walk away?” and “what was she wearing?” By diverting attention onto the abuse survivor and their behaviour, the responsibility of the abuser (perpetrator/s) is lessened. Whilst we might feel that these are ‘only words’, words are how we communicate meaning and are used to make decisions about abuse cases in legal and professional contexts, therefore they have serious consequences.

Perhaps most shockingly, these discussions have recently been found in the UK to still be prevalent in professional circles, with social workers, police officers, health authority practitioners and others engaging in evaluations of the ‘worth’ of victims (and therefore the credibility of their accounts of abuse). In a famous recent case that will be mentioned later in more depth, the Rotherham Child Abuse Scandal in the UK, has shown that over 1,400 young women were systematically groomed and raped by gangs of men in this town, despite social services, the police and other professional groups knowing about it (Jay 2014). Subsequent analysis of documents for the Independent investigation and report authored by Judge Alexis Jay, have shown that some of these professionals referred to 14 and 15-year-old girls as, “asking for it [rape]”, they were often were labelled as ‘troubled’ as if this explained why they were abused and when reporting sexual abuse were typically disbelieved by a variety of professionals. In essence, the report, which has had worldwide impact and profile, showed that victim-blaming was key to why children and young people’s accounts of being systematically abused by sex gangs, was ignored (Hart and Heal 2017).

There is a clear message here, just because someone works in a profession that is supposed to help young people, it cannot be assumed that, a. they will do so, and b. that they themselves are not an abuser. In the Rotherham case, it is clear that despite professional values and training, abuse can be ignored by professionals and victims treated as if they are to blame. It is for this last reason that all people working with children and young people, whether they be professionals or lay youth volunteers, need to be both reflective and challenging about their own assumptions about abuse; this is a difficult task for a number of reasons.

Activity 1: Why might it be problematic for some people who work, paid or unpaid, with children and youth, to examine abuse issues?

Spend 10 minutes considering this issue, try to identify at least two reasons why some members of the youth workforce might not want, or feel able, to address abuse issues in their work.


There are a number of reasons that you might have thought of, in relation to the difficulties of thinking, examining and working with abuse issues for youth workers.

  1. Youth Workers may have experienced abuse themselves, either as targets or bystanders. Many youth workers might have experienced abuse in their own lives, which they may or may not have ‘dealt with’ psychologically or emotionally. Diverse forms of abuse have been identified and, as we will see later, can leave individuals with psychological and emotional issues (although, it is important to recognise that many people continue on to highly successful lives, despite abuse. Indeed, some become key fighters for the rights of others who are abused). For some youth workers, thinking about abuse of young people may bring back feelings that are hard to cope with.
  2. Beliefs and cultural issues. Like us all, youth workers come from complex cultural backgrounds, in which shared ideas about abuse are reinforced by social, media and sub-cultural assumptions about what abuse is, who carries it out, how it can be identified and who is to blame for it, what should be done about abuse and so forth. This is to say, professionals and lay youth workers alike, can be unduly influenced by this cultural ‘soup’ that is all around us in terms of ideas, views, attitudes, experiences and understandings. Sometimes, that soup can be highly negative, victim-blaming, gender-biased, racist or xenophobic (hating of newcomers or strangers) and therefore, this becomes reflected in youth workers ideas, as much as it does in those of other people in society. Whilst it would be nice to believe that youth workers would be more challenging of such opinions, it is not always the case.
  3. Fear. Youth workers may not have experienced abuse themselves but they may still fear dealing with it in their work. Helping youth who have experienced abuse might involve engaging with highly charged emotions of the abused young person, no emotions (detachment), overly sexualised behaviour, mental health issues and so forth; the range of issues that might occur is wide, because abuse survivors engage with the world post-abuse in different ways. Indeed, we cannot always assume they are no longer experiencing forms of abuse because, sadly, experience of one type has been shown to increase the chances of a person being abused in other contexts. It is understandable that youth workers might be concerned about dealing with abuse because it often involves a complex situation, it might be ongoing and working with abuse requires high level skills and engagement to support and nurture a young survivor.
  4. Youth Workers may have been perpetrators of abuse in the past. This could take many forms. If they have engaged in abusive behaviour previously, such as bullying others at school or in the workplace, they may struggle to deal with abuse at work. In some cases, youth workers will themselves be active abusers may have been as bullies or it might they are abusers currently; clearly in these cases they are less likely to respond appropriately to abuse cases today. Domestic violence research shows, for instance, that a host of professional groups one would not expect engage in domestic abuse, including members of Police Forces and social workers. In relation to sexual abuse, cases around faith communities of all types have indicated that priests, imams and other religious figures have been perpetrators of abuse. These cases all show that members of the broad youth workforce can be, and have been shown to be, potential abusers and this may impact on their response to other cases of abuse they have to work with.