SIX: Innovation and organisational defences

People are often described as ‘defensive’, but what does it mean for an organisation to act in a defensive way? Why does it happen, and what effect does it have? This chapter explores what it means for organisations working in the field of extra-familial risks and harms to enact collective defences. Drawing on data from observations of practice across the case-study sites, a composite vignette is constructed of a muti-agency team meeting. Taking a psychosocial perspective, the language, practice and behaviour of professionals in this composite ‘meeting’ is analysed through the lens of organisational defences against anxiety. Looking beneath the surface, the authors argue that defensive practice is caused by a complex force field created by anxieties about the high-risk nature of young people’s harm and the lack of a coherent regulatory framework. The chapter argues that practice and research in this field need to be characterised by emotionally containing reflective spaces, which will reduce defences and enable opportunities for caring and relationship-based approaches to young people’s safety.

Introduction

Innovation in social care involves changing paradigms, systems and practices, often quite radically. When it comes to the field of extra-familial risks and harms, some of these changes have been rapid and recent. Particularly in the case of Contextual Safeguarding, new ways of working, with new partners, have emerged with increasing volition in response to harms that not long ago were thought to be irrelevant for children’s social care. With such rapid growth and transformation, how can innovation practice ensure that it keeps young people central to vision, design and review? Might an innovation designed to safeguard young people at risk beyond the home, no matter how well meaning, at times override young people’s rights and agency, their ways of seeing the world, their perspectives, and their wider welfare needs? And why might this happen?

So far in this book, we have argued that innovation, particularly in the area of extra-familial risks and harms, should be approached with consideration and care: in Chapter Two, we discussed the importance of having the right conditions for innovation; in Chapter Three, we explored the delicacy associated with early-stage innovation; and in Chapter Five, we looked at the high personal cost to practitioners of maintaining a narrative of innovation success when innovation conditions are not right. In this chapter, we pick up this cautionary theme to explore how innovation can lead to defensive practices that alienate young people and could cause them further harm. Taking up Brown’s (2015) encouragement to be honest about innovation ‘failure’, we look again at the gap (identified in Chapter Five) between a wish to innovate, on the one hand, and the reality of what is possible, on the other. Rather than thinking about the impact on practitioners, we now analyse what happens to organisational systems when they lack the space to reflect on the mismatch between innovation vision and its reality.

A framework for thinking about organisational defences

Turning to the psychosocial concept of ‘social systems as a defence against anxiety’ (Menzies-Lyth, 1988 [1959]), this chapter will explore the defences that emerge when innovation is implemented without the policies, resources and culture to enable it to flourish. Using examples from our data, we go on to show how complex anxieties ‘beneath the surface’ within the collective organisational unconscious can lead to practices that can have significant and tangible consequences for the services that young people receive.

As with Chapter Five, this territory comes with a degree of caution. We are not psychoanalysts, and nor is it our role to pathologise practitioners or their practice. We start from the position that, as with individual psychological defences, social and organisational defences exist because they are necessary. Particularly when it comes to work that involves serious harm and death to young people, it makes sense that we, as humans, need a way to defend ourselves against these crushing and painful realities, as well as the limited degree to which we can prevent them. Individually, defences can lead us to avoiding feeling things it might be better we felt. This avoidance can stop us from taking advantage of opportunities and limit us in many ways. Shifting to thinking about organisations and groups, similar dysfunctional defence structures can be at play. As with individual defences, their purpose is often to protect organisations, but they risk preventing the organisation’s members from connecting with emotions in ways that limit the organisation’s capacity to fulfil its mission. This links back to the idea of the primary task explored in Chapter Five. We could say that the primary task of the case-study organisations involved with the Innovate Project is to promote young people’s well-being by protecting them from risk and harm beyond their family settings. How does this primary task mobilise organisational defences, and, in institutional ethnography terms, how do such defences manifest and concretise in organisational policies, procedures and forms of governance? What work (Smith and Griffith, 2022) do these defences do in creating or maintaining certain forms of discourse about young people or particular cultures of practice? These questions are the focus of this chapter.

To start, it is useful to foreground the role of psychological containment and its role in group defences. Again, we draw on theoretical frameworks developed from the study of individual psychological processes and later applied to group processes. The foundation of this work comes from Bion (1962), who studied the way that a mother might take in, and hold, the strong feelings projected into them by their baby – a process termed ‘reverie’. Containment is about holding feelings, but, crucially, feelings are not just given over to be evacuated by the containing person. Rather, Bion describes how an infant’s emotions are made more tolerable through reverie: feelings are ‘passed back’ to the baby in a less scary form, helping them to tolerate what previously was intolerable. What makes this possible is the adult capacity of the mother, who can ‘internalise a container of feelings but also a mind that can hold thoughts’ (Salzberger-Wittenberg, 1983: 60). As with defences, containment is a concept that has been taken up in common discourse within the social care sector, but here we want to define it more precisely than simply listening empathetically. Applied beyond infant/child processes, containment within group processes is about how complex, unconsciously held, unsettling, ‘unwanted or threatening ideas’ (Frosh, 2012: 162) – which may be mobilised by intolerable anxieties provoked by the primary task – can be ‘taken in’ by the thinking mind of the organisation. Applied specifically to social care, Ruch (2007: 662) addresses this question to argue for the need for ‘safe’ spaces for social workers and managers to ‘make sense of the uncertainty and anxiety they encounter on an everyday basis’. As we explore in the following, in the absence of such safe spaces, intolerable anxieties can be defended against through off-task, and even harmful, activities.

The framework we developed to analyse practice within the case-study sites was informed by Menzies-Lyth’s (1988 [1959]) work and also draws on related ideas from Cooper and Lees (2015). Menzies-Lyth’s work arose out of an observational study of a hospital in response to the ‘poor quality care of patients, poor inter-relations between senior nurses and trainee nurses, and high levels of sickness and attrition rates among nurses’ (Finch and Schaub, 2015: 312). She found that in the absence of emotional containment, close physical contact with suffering and dying patients had led to defensive organisational practices. Examples included obsessional activity undertaken ritualistically, such as paying considerable attention to how sheets were folded in a cupboard or the use of language that served to distance nurses from the personhood of patients, for example, using the term ‘the cancer in bed five’ rather than the person’s name. Cooper and Lees (2015) explain that these can be thought about as ‘depressive anxieties’ that draw on Kleinian object-relations theory (Klein, 1973 [1955]), as what is being defended against is, in essence, ‘fears about harm done to the “other”, and the consequent fear of guilt about such harm’ (Cooper and Lees, 2015: 244). We looked across the data from all six case studies for examples of depressive anxieties under the following categories:

  • fragmentation of relationships (emotional distance between worker and young person) or depersonalised services;

  • ritualised task performance (obsessional ritualistic tasks); and

  • inappropriate allocation of responsibility (offloading of decisions upwards or criticising downwards) (Ruch, 2007).

Cooper and Lees (2015: 248) argue that public scrutiny, inspection, political sensitivity and the marketisation of public services have led to a new set of anxieties that, rather than being linked to close contact with vulnerable children and their experiences of suffering, are generated by external pressures that ‘bear down’ on organisations with ‘a life of their own’. Mindful of the extra-organisational features at play in the policy context of extra-familial harm and the scrutiny linked to innovation research, we added the following ‘persecutory’ anxieties to our analysis framework:

  • rationing anxieties (worries about resources, cuts and so on);

  • performance anxieties (motivated by data, audits and service inspections); and

  • partnership anxieties (networks of multi-agencies over which no one has central control).

We chose two examples of data from each case-study site: an observation of practice and a discussion with practitioners (interview, focus group or collaborative meeting). Alongside considering the features of depressive and persecutory anxieties, we also asked a key institutional ethnography question: in whose interests is this work happening (Rankin, 2017)? To exemplify our findings, we present two composite vignettes drawn from the data analysed. Everything represented in the vignettes was witnessed somewhere in the fieldwork. The reported conversations comprise an amalgam of: (1) paraphrased text, which has been slightly altered to preserve anonymity; and (2) transcribed verbatim speech, which is indicated by quotation marks. These constructed conversations illustrate our attempt to apprehend and appreciate how organisational systems that seek to create safety for young people affected by extra-familial risks and harms collectively manage by defending themselves against the uncertainty and anxiety generated by their primary task.

Observing organisational defences in the case-study sites

A typical extra-familial panel

Imagine the following scene. You are a social worker attending a multi-agency panel. The role of the panel is to provide oversight of the most ‘high-risk cases’ of young people experiencing extra-familial harm. The following discussion takes place:
Chair:Does anyone have any updates?
Social Worker 1:‘There’s quite a lot of mental health coming up’ in the area at the moment.
Chair:Ok, on that, let’s move on to Craig: a 16-year-old male. They’ve scored 92. ‘This is high at 92.’
Panel member:How is the score made up again?
Chair:You get ‘10 for suicide and self-harm’.
Social Worker 1:‘There have been incidents while he was inside.’
Youth worker:I tried to get updates from the prison, but I haven’t heard from them.
Chair:‘We need to know what’s happening.’
Youth justice worker:I had arranged to see him, but his family have moved, so I couldn’t. Hopefully, I’ll see him next week.
Chair:I think we can reduce the score now he’s out. ‘Anything new to add from the police side?’
Police:‘He’s showing as victim of another crime; is that relevant still?’ ‘Just whizzing through.’ ‘For us, he’s wanted, although he’s also missing.’
Chair:We need to find out about the crime – can you confirm for next time? Shall we talk about the network?
Social worker:‘Missing is not a feature of the broader network’ but ‘we have young people and care leavers with a lot of safeguarding concerns’. There’s exploitation happening with the girls.
Chair (to social worker):Have you updated the safety plan and risk rating? ‘What we as an organisation need to know is that we’ve got a line of sight to our most at risk.’ Do we have any more intel on the network?
Police:‘Last week they were found with a peer in possession of substances. They were NFA’d [no further action]. I overruled because I don’t agree it’s not in the public interest to pursue it. I’m pleased to say this will now get a response.’
Chair:‘Thank you. I’m glad to hear they will get a youth offending response which will be welfare led.’

Distance and fragmentation

If you have never been involved in a panel like this, you might be disturbed or confused by what is going on. At the start of the vignette, the professionals are talking about the mental health of young people in their local area. They then focus on a young person – Craig – who, during his time in prison, attempted to kill or harm himself. They discuss how Craig has recently been the victim of a crime and has been hurt, but they do not know how. Neither do they know where Craig is. Although Craig’s friends are not missing, professionals are worried that harm and abuse might happen to them. Craig’s safety is very uncertain, and the way to help him is unclear. Even writing about this now and imagining Craig as a real young man makes us feel worried for him. Yet, the language used in the vignette – reflecting what we saw in observations – does not convey these emotions but, rather, seems to work as a defence.

Depersonalised language and processes that created distance rather than connection between young people and workers were something we saw across the ethnography. In the vignette, converting suicide into a quantifiable number, using phrases or words like “mental health coming up”, “missing”, “wanted”, “networks” and “safeguarding”, and referring to Craig as a “male”, all function to separate the professionals from what is really happening and its human nature. They convey no emotion. The term “missing” is shorthand for a range of statutory processes and time frames, but it also means that there is a young person out there at risk of harm and the people in the room do not know where he is. Professionals say “there’s exploitation happening” to avoid saying young people are being raped for money. Following Menzies-Lyth’s thinking, we ask: what underlies the systemic use of euphemistic, matter-of-fact, technical responses to violence and abuse towards young people? We sense that this is a ‘depressive’ anxiety, resulting from having responsibility for the safety of young people in such precarious positions when the way to help is so unclear. To deal with this, a discourse around extra-familial risks and harms has developed that masks its horror and staves off overwhelming despair. Bolstering this defence involves the practice of prioritising information gathering about young people over building relationships with them. Meetings are then dominated by following up fragments of information about young people that professionals seem to only have snippets of knowledge about, leading to a sense of things happening in the abstract. That these activities seem so far from creating safer lives for young people emphasises how they exist to make an otherwise intolerable burden of guilt and worry somewhat more tolerable for those tasked with this work.

Risk-related rituals

Alongside depersonalising and distancing practices, we also saw defences around routinised process: the updating of risk registers and safety plans, and the tyranny of producing visual maps on screens that detail ‘associations’ between young people (often without their knowledge), seemingly for their own sake, with little thought about whether they are necessary, accurate, useful or ethical. Routinised activities in social care are well documented (Trevithick, 2014), but what stood out was the apparent preoccupation with ‘monitoring’ and having ‘oversight’ of young people at risk beyond the home and family. The very normalisation of panels to discuss multiple young people distinguishes extra-familial risk from abuse and other harms within the family. In the last five years, such panels as multi-agency child exploitation (MACE) meetings or missing, exploited and trafficked (MET) meetings have come to dominate this landscape. Yet, these are not a feature of intra-familial safeguarding. Panels are not instigated to discuss the 15 most at-risk families on child protection plans, nor do they rely so heavily on mapping families as a primary means of intervention. What is it that is peculiar to extra-familial risks and harms that has led to a ritualised preoccupation with having a “line of sight” over young people, as referred to in this chapter’s opening excerpt? Why do authorities focus on gathering “intel”, the facts and “updates”, and document this in such a way that it overshadows and forecloses discussions about the young people involved and their contextual needs and interests? Our sense is that while this shares many similarities to Menzies-Lyth’s ritualised task performance, caused by guilt-related depressive anxieties, when it comes to extra-familial risks and harms, this is combined with persecutory preoccupations created by the wider policy context within which this work sits. This leads to a complex combination of anxieties that can preclude thinking and reflection.

Role diffusion and confusion

A feature of these multi-agency panels is the blurring of professional roles. Those whose duties focus on crime prevention often feature as primary information givers, sitting alongside those whose professional framework is in safety and welfare. In the vignette outlined earlier, there is a discussion about criminal justice agencies taking the lead in an intervention with young people, and this is described by the chair as a welfare response. Two young people at risk of harm have been found carrying drugs by police. Rather than pondering over how they came to know this (That is, were they stopped and searched and, if so, why?) or discussing who might be the best agency to respond, a senior police officer says they overturned a ‘no further action’ decision made by officers. No one asks what action followed from this. The chair describes it as a positive outcome.

Aside from the unexplored alternative responses, there is a striking absence of curiosity about how this might have been experienced by these young people. Are they likely to feel supported and ready to engage in a process that was instigated by police officers coming to their home or school to say that their case is reopened and they are being referred to the youth justice service? The unlikeliness of this makes it seem as if the chair’s pronouncement of it being a welfare response is an act of wishful thinking, a defence against facing up to how what happened might have driven the young people further from the support they need – even if it was the only option on the table. In the absence of a more relationship- and welfare-based response, perhaps the group needed to imagine what they did was helpful, even if it might not be. This mirrors Menzies-Lyth’s description of how defences can be organised around the inappropriate allocation of responsibility – the giving over of welfare work to the police. This ‘depressive’ anxiety is combined, however, with ‘persecutory’ anxieties related to networks of professionals brought together, over which no one has control (Cooper and Lees, 2015), creating a complex field of anxiety. The effect is to preclude critical and reflective thinking, enacting a powerful defence against asking whether professional activities are helping young people or, more unbearable still, might even be placing them at further risk of harm, as racially profiled stop-and-search activity has been shown to do (Jackson et al, 2021).

Defending against an untenable bind

We emphasise that defensive behaviour within the field of extra-familial risks and harms is not surprising. The combination of organisational and extra-organisational psychosocial processes is intense. Rather than judge, our intention is to seek to understand what is happening when, for example, social care professionals project wishful fantasies onto criminal justice agencies. Is it that, with extremely limited resources, the available option becomes reified as a good option? To understand this context better, let us return to the meeting:
Chair:I’m glad to hear that these young people will have a youth offending response which will be a welfare response.
Panel member:Was that Ryan?
Chair:I think it’s Ray-an. I always get it wrong.
Social Worker 2:‘No, but Rayan’s accommodation arrangements ended last week.’ The situation has escalated. Some ‘males chased up to his home.’ ‘He had been deemed safe at his supported accommodation.’ ‘He was linked with an OCG [organised criminal gang]’ and has ‘issues with housing’. He was victim of an assault recently. He was beaten with a golf club. He’s now ‘not engaging’ with ‘his social worker since he left the housing project’. ‘I’m really worried about him.’ ‘He’s refusing support’ but ‘I’m worried’ he’s going to die.
Police:‘We are aware of him but it’s difficult’ if he isn’t engaging with us.
Social Worker 2 (sounding distressed):I’ve just spoken to my manager and ‘the plan is to close him’.
Chair:Because he turns 18 next week, our options are ‘very limited’. We’ll ‘see what we can do’. ‘It’s difficult because he won’t engage.’
Social Worker 2:‘He’s scared to.’ I just feel ‘if we could just hold him for another one to two months’.
Police:Is there anything else ‘before we go to the tracker?’

Across the case-study sites, structures and procedures seemed to be organised in such a way that professionals could be protected from the emotional impact of the work to some degree. However, it was not the case that professionals were entirely disconnected from their feelings about the harm faced by young people. In this vignette, we also see how deeply troubled and worried many were. Social Worker 2 is in touch with depressive feelings around the danger that Rayan is in and is given some space to express care and concern. Their “if only” comment is an invitation to engage in reflective thinking: can Rayan be held for a bit longer? However, the paucity of services available overwhelms the discussion and closes down this type of thinking. There is no suitable housing for him, and he turns 18 next week. Resources are tightly rationed, and the panel must adhere to the eligibility rules around age; there is no flexibility. Although the discussion comes close to recognising that this decision might contribute to Rayan possibly dying, the system, represented by the panel, is sufficiently defended against this to ‘close the case’ and relinquish their responsibility for Rayan’s welfare. In this way, defences against persecutory anxieties can overshadow depressive feelings to protect the organisation, person and role from their untenable bind (Cooper and Lees, 2015).

Along with the all-consuming drive to ration scarce resources, the horror of what might happen when the service stops supporting Rayan is defended against through a retreat to his lack of engagement. Rather than consider what Rayan might need and want, and to what extremes they could go to get that for him, everything is cast under the shadow of his 18th birthday. The chair and the social worker’s manager adhere to the rule of the 18th birthday cut-off, and everyone else follows; they record the risk level on the ‘tracker’, making sure every decision is accurately recorded. In this way, the system is defended against its own neglect and dereliction of care, as well as the injury caused to workers who are required to enact such processes (Reynolds, 2011). The intra-personal, organisational and extra-organisational pressures that professionals navigate creates a toxic combination of ‘depressive’ and ‘persecutory’ anxieties and subsequent defences.

Practice within a context of uncertainty

We have painted a bleak formulation: professionals, subject to impossible conditions, unconsciously resort to defensive practices that leave young people a long way from getting what they need. Before we turn to the implications of this, we will take a deeper look at these conditions. An important factor is that these data were created by researchers (us) observing practice, primarily in online spaces. Most people being watched doing their work would likely wonder what is in the mind of the observer and perhaps worry about this. However, we suggest that the emergent and high-stakes nature of practice in the field of extra-familial risks and harms, combined with a perception in several sites that some of our research team are ‘experts’ in the field, created a particularly intense psychosocial affective innovation field. Here, any observational ‘other’ (especially a disembodied person on a screen) is likely to feed into pre-existing defences.

Central to understanding this dynamic is appreciating how safeguarding young people beyond their family settings is in a state of flux – culturally, morally and politically. Practice guidance for the three innovation frameworks (Contextual Safeguarding, Transitional Safeguarding and Trauma-informed Practice) is either in its infancy or non-existent. Regulatory and legislative frameworks for statutory practice in the field of extra-familial risks and harms are still emergent, particularly for young people in transition to adulthood. Simultaneously, there is intense media and public interest in the (anti-social) behaviour of young people and what can be done about it – alongside some highly charged themes around who is to ‘blame’. This can be seen, for example, in the way that child sexual exploitation has been co-opted to make racist political points that play on the trope of the ‘Muslim grooming gang’ (Tufail, 2015; Cockbain, 2023). Therefore, while social care organisations are inherently engaged in an anxiety-provoking task when it comes to extra-familial risks and harms, the weight of uncertainty and unanswered questions about where the harm comes from and what can be done about it, married with the extremity of risk faced by young people transitioning into young adulthood, create a particularly turbulent field of anxiety, which is unique to this area of practice and research.

Returning to Menzies-Lyth’s study, we might imagine that if offered emotional containment, the nurses could connect with depressive feelings related to the suffering and death of patients, and that, over time, the hospital systems would shift and the dysfunctional defences could be relinquished. However, it is harder to imagine an equivalent in the current context of young people affected by extra-familial risks or harms. Beyond taking a more realistic view of risk-taking and adolescent development, knowing what a depressive position would be is a challenge, as there should never be anything inevitable about a teenager being raped or stabbed. Similarly, looking at Cooper and Lees’ (2015) study of a child safeguarding department, while familial harm is complex and subject to marketisation and extra-organisational pressures, there is nevertheless a well-established set of practices, policy frameworks, legal precedents, processes, expectations and partnerships that exist to provide some certainty and containment. The same cannot be said for harms beyond the home, making innovation in this area particularly affective and complex.

Uncertainty at the practice, policy and political levels creates an anxiety field underpinned by philosophical preoccupations about extra-familial risks and harms. Sitting largely at the unconscious level, these fundamental questions ask: ‘What should we be doing?’; ‘Why should we be doing it?’; ‘Can we do it?’; ‘Are we doing it right?’; ‘How can we know if we are doing it right?’; and ‘Is this really our work?’. The answers are not available – or available only in tentative and inconsistent forms. What makes this so problematic is the lack of spaces for voicing uncertainty. Instead, as we explored in Chapter Five, considerable work is directed towards avoiding these big, fundamental and unsettling questions, and the enormity of the culture and policy change that they demand. Perhaps this energy is unconsciously displaced into a feverish interest in knowledge acquisition towards needing to find things out: the listing of names, the mapping of peers, the giving of updates and intelligence. This is something we saw across the data set: a preoccupation with something being perpetually out of reach; something or someone being missing; some unobtainable knowledge that must be found; and a kind of magical belief that certainty and complete knowledge is the path to keeping young people safe. This, we argue, is an unconscious manifestation of a collective anxiety related to having such an uncertain task.

Institutional ethnography asks us to consider, ‘In whose interest is this working?’. It seems to us that the defences described here are enacted to protect those at the forefront of practice from feeling the full force of the harm caused to young people and to protect organisations from having to face the uncertainty void that exists at the core of safeguarding work with young people beyond their homes. Ultimately, however, no one is served by these defence processes. If defences exist because they are necessary, the only way to reconnect with a more compassionate and less defensive set of practices is to render them redundant. Here, we return to the role of organisational containment. We argue that these data and analysis makes a strong case for emotional support for practitioners and managers to be a core part of all extra-familial work (and a core element of related research studies too). This is not an optional extra, just for those whose health and well-being is adversely impacted by the work. Rather, this should be understood as integral to the implementation of innovation in this field, as evidently necessary as wearing oven gloves to take something from a hot oven. We must take seriously the intolerable anxieties facing professionals doing this work and advocate for a thinking mind that can tolerate the uncertainty void at the core of this work. Particularly in the light of recent media discussions about the ‘single-word inspections’ in education undertaken by Ofsted and the impact that this can have on individual leaders, we argue for a compassionate appreciation of the complexity of the tasks involved in safeguarding young people from extra-familial risks and harms. As we approach innovation – particularly innovation in the area of adolescent safety and harm – our message is that we should do so with caution and care, and make provision for the inevitable uncertainty and turbulence that is associated with it. In this way, organisations will have a stronger chance of innovating in such a way that stays in touch with the needs of young people and partnering with them to find respectful, caring and humane routes to safety.

Conclusion

The story we have been telling in this chapter is about how new forms of high-risk and high-profile safeguarding work, subject to an inadequate policy, practice and legislative framework, have led to innovation characterised by defensive practice. To move forward, we need to acknowledge the anxiety-provoking context surrounding innovation in safeguarding responses to extra-familial risks and harms. If we do this, we will be in a stronger position to see the type of practice described in this chapter for what it is: urgent and pressured innovation activity that deflects the focus away from the lurking, big questions and intense feelings that high-risk work inevitably generates in an environment of uncertainty. Routinised practice, depersonalised ways of talking about young people and a preoccupation with information gathering and ‘intelligence’ all speak of organisational systems defending themselves against an untenable situation while needing to be seen to be doing something. When systems are thus defended, they can lose touch with their task – in this case, finding new ways to make life safer and better for young people. Rather than innovations in building relationships with young people and understanding their experiences as a foundation for this work, we often see innovations that seek new ways to find things out about young people, despite the lack of evidence that this leads to a safer or better life for them.

As we will explore further in Chapter Seven, organisational systems like this, subject to intense psychosocial anxieties, need reflective spaces. Those of us leading innovations in the fields of extra-familial risks and harms – whether in practice or in research roles – need to face up to the reality that this is an area of work beset with multidirectional anxieties. We need to cultivate self-awareness of how the uncertain conditions of innovation impact us, and we ignore this at our peril. From direct practice through to senior management level, innovators in the field of extra-familial risks and harms need to carve out emotionally containing spaces, where the complexity of the tasks we are involved in can be spoken about and their impact explored (Baldwin, 2008; McPheat and Butler, 2014). It is our ethical imperative to prioritise facing these things honestly together. Only in this way can we create better innovation conditions that allow us to move beyond defensive practices and towards organisational systems characterised by relationships, care and respect for young people.

Key chapter insights into policy and practice

  • Practice in the field of extra-familial risks and harms is emotionally demanding, high risk and anxiety provoking.

  • Innovation in this field is complex and uncertain due to limitations in national policy, legislation and practice guidance.

  • The sense of urgency and pressure to reform and transform services that this combination creates may mean the need for emotionally containing and reflective spaces to consider unsettling feelings and fundamental questions is overlooked, and defensive practice ensues, characterised by routinised activity, depersonalised ways of talking about young people and a preoccupation with information gathering and ‘intelligence’.

  • To address this at an organisational level, the complex and demanding nature of this field needs to be acknowledged, and reflective spaces providing emotional containment should be prioritised.

  • Containment also needs to be provided at a macro-level by the provision of a coherent and settled policy context and sufficiently resourced services.

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