As a young woman, Dr Carlene Firmin wrote a regular article in the Guardian newspaper entitled ‘The Girl in the Corner.’ As a Philosophy graduate from the University of Cambridge, Carlene was passionate about writing on topics such as family support policies, abusive teenage relationships and joint enterprise legislation. A wide range of subjects held a familiar theme; the rights of children and young people. This passion for social justice has seen Carlene become the youngest ever Black woman to receive an MBE in 2011, at 27 years old.

She took time from her busy schedule to speak with Jennie Smith, our Director, about her passion for improving standards in society, and the various projects over the years she has been involved in, ultimately being seen as the leading expert in Contextual Safeguarding.

After graduation, writing about those social justice issues brought Carlene where she wanted to be at that stage; being involved in the Building Bridges project supported by Choice FM, focussing on contemporary issues such as why young women were carrying weapons. For the Voice in Violence project, Carlene interviewed a wide range of women, including mothers and grandmothers, producing a report on the impact of serious youth and gang violence on women and girls. It was this project that led to the MBE, something which she tells Jennie she accepted ‘on behalf of all the other young girls behind me.’

So why Philosophy and not Social Work or Law at Cambridge? Carlene described to Jennie that philosophy trained her to ask different questions. There is never a right or wrong answer, and in fact, Philosophy looks at whether we are asking the right question. This is a thread that has run through Carlene’s career. Jennie suggests that as Carlene asks different questions, is this perhaps the reason why she is seen as a leading force in safeguarding today.

Carlene’s position as Assistant Director for Youth Justice and CSE at Bardardo’s saw her team and network of services expand. During this time, Peer on Peer abuse was a theme that was repeatedly observed by professionals working with young people. Her position as Principal Policy Advisor to the Office of the Children’s Commissioner again allowed her to draw on her wealth of experience on gang and youth sexual violence.

Carlene’s PhD Thesis covered the safeguarding implications of contextualising abuse between young people in social fields. This piece of research included nine case reviews, covering three murders and six rapes. Whilst completing this research, Carlene established the MsUnderstood programme, aiming to improve local and national responses to young people’s experiences of gender equality.

The research from her PhD founded the basis of the proposed new framework looking at the peer group from a safeguarding point of view, and this is where Contextual Safeguarding was born. First, a pilot in Hackney and then 10 sites, leading to 40 local areas that have rolled out the framework. As we now know, the most recent edition of Working Together to Safeguard Children and Keeping Children Safe in Education places Contextual Safeguarding at the heart of the services all organisations offer to children and young people. This is the result of a lifetime’s work by Carlene, culminating in the publication of her recent book ‘Contextual Safeguarding and Child Protection: Rewriting the Rules‘. 

What about her plans for the future?

More of the same fantastic research? She certainly wants people to think about things differently in terms of the bigger picture. We should all be a bit more like Carlene and start to ask ourselves are we asking the right questions when we are dealing with children and young people.

What is clear is that, at heart, Carlene is an Academic who has been thrust into the limelight. Asked why the title of her Guardian series was ‘The Girl in the Corner’, Carlene described herself all these years ago, stood with her hand up, trying to have her voice heard, feeling as if she was in a corner with no one listening to her alternative questions. Well, it is plain to see that we are sitting up and listening to Carlene now.

We are running our next online DSL Course 

Created for Organisations working with Children and Adults in Need

Tuesday 13 April over two session
9.30 – 12.30 & 13.30 – 16.30

Key learning objectives

 To reserve your place today email [email protected]


Wellbeing sessions for Leaders and Staff