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Risk Assessment in Social Work

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Published: Wed, 12 Jul 2017

Risk can be described as a ‘hazard, or a chance/likelihood of a loss or a particular event to occur’ (Collins, 2012), which can appear as a great uncertainty in relation to social work when intervening in people’s lives. Over the years this has been more formalised by statistical probability and structured assessment tools to guide professionals. Risk across the continuum of social work can be placed into two general categories, those risks that people pose to themselves or others and those risks which people are exposed to (Kemshall, 2007). Risk taking and management needs to be balanced between the uncertainty of unnecessary harm and dangers that worker and service user may be exposed to. The right to protection and the right to take risks need to be thoroughly addressed and considered, this in its own right will highlight many ethical dilemmas. Intervention must be justified; on the other hand society has a duty to ensure children are not exposed to abusive situations. Managing risk should be an opportunity to also seek or increase positive outcomes, not just to avoid danger but to reduce the odds against it (Calder, 2008 Care Council of Wales, 2002, 4, Corby, 2001).

There appears to be no definite explanation of risk or risk assessment in social work and whether it refers to only negative or harmful outcomes, the balance of good against bad outcomes or whether it even includes the possibility of positive events (Calder, 2008). Risk appears to revolve around the concept of danger and potential harm and is not only related to service users but professional and organisational practice. Assessing risk requires interference in family life and the professional needs to be conscientious of how this is managed in regards to how they engage with service users (Calder, 2008, CCW, 2002, 1-3).

The two main principals of the Children Act, 1989 are to protect children from significant harm and to ensure and promote their long term welfare. The Children Act 1989 introduced the concept of significant harm as a threshold for statutory bodies to intervene in family life, promoting the best interests of the child. Local Authorities have a duty to ensure that children and young people are protected from significant harm and to safeguard and promote the welfare of the child that may require help and support beyond that of normal mainstream services (Scie, 2005). Assessing and safeguarding children from significant harm is a major role in social work but it can be difficult to assess risk to a high degree of accuracy as factors are largely cumulative and research has shown that it can be difficult to anticipate long term outcomes (Calder, 2008, Scie, 2005). ‘Risk is also dependant on the situation; one definition does not fit all’ (Scie, 2005, p21).

Corby, (1996) suggested that there are three aspects to risk assessment in child protection. These are preventative, investigative and continuation risk assessment (Coulshed & Orme, 2006, Kenshall & Pritchard, 2001). Preventative risk assessment is considered before any involvement by agencies takes place and may influence the decision whether to intervene or not. Preventative risk assessment is based on indicative factors which inform judgements (evidence based practice) (Coulshed & Orme, 2006, Webb, 2006). Early work by Browne & Saqi (1998) cited in Kenshall & Pritchard (2001) gave indicators of predictive factors, for example: history of family violence, history of mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse, parent abused or neglected as a child and research on these matters will be used assess the likely cause or outcome or influence the way in which the professional intervenes. A criticism of this way of working is that it can detract from the professional autonomy in decision making. Social workers should be aware and inform themselves of available evidence as good practice but should be able balance this in each individual situation (Coulshed & Orme, 2006, Kenshall & Pritchard, 2001). This way of practice can highlight ethical issues for the worker by means of discriminating people because of past events or by factors that are out of their control, the danger is that non-abusers could be identified as abusers. Social workers may also intervene when there is no evidence of abuse which can be seen as intrusive and demonstrates the importance of balancing rights and responsibilities (Coulshed & Orme, 2006 CCW, 2002, Webb, 2006).

Investigative risk assessment can also be known as an initial assessment and is usually brought to the attention of social services departments by someone who has expressed concerns, this maybe another professional or a member of the public. These are usually dealt by working collaboratively with other agencies in particular to child protection and will almost always involve the Police, G.P/Health Visitor and education. The social worker will be required to use the Framework for Assessment which provides a systematic way of recording and analysing information about the child and its family. The worker would also refer to the All Wales Child Protection Procedures (WAG, 2008) when there are concerns regarding child protection. Difficulties can arise when working in a multi-agency partnership as each agency may have their own agenda or expectations of outcomes. This can be evident when working in cases where domestic violence is present and the identification of the risk that the children are possibly being exposed to being emotional and physical harm. The Police may be of the opinion that the children should be removed from the situation immediately but the social worker may feel that it is better to work with the mother and possibly the father/partner in resolving the issues but also ensuring the safety of all concerned. This may be done as a child in need or child protection depending on the severity of the abuse. Again this demonstrates the complex task by social workers of balancing the risk against the rights of those involved. Social workers have the duty to consider the rights of those involved for example the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC, 1989) Article 19, states that a child has the right to protection from abuse and neglect. Also Article 8 of The Human Rights Act 1998 states the right to respect for family life (Coulshed & Orme, 2006, Cree & Wallace, 2005).

Continuation risk assessment may be considered during long term interventions whereby for example a child maybe returning to the care of their parents after a period of separation due to risk concerns. Where identifiable risk has been discovered assessments need to be made at regular intervals with the focus being on risk reduction rather than risk elimination (Corby, 1996, Coulshed & Orme, 2006). Continuation risk assessment is about balancing the risks of intervention against non-intervention. Evaluation of the original concerns need to be considered and changes that have occurred acknowledged. The social worker will then have to assess whether the changes made have had a positive or negative influence on the situation or made no difference at all (Coulshed & Orme, 2006).

In assessing risk social workers need to consider how power and knowledge can influence decisions that are made. Professionals have the power to take action to protect others, have the access and knowledge of resources on offer and the knowledge of theories which may interpret behaviour and label individuals. Using these to label or stereotype an individual is in itself an abuse of power (Coulshed & Orme, 2006). Today policy promotes the need for practitioners to be sensitive and informed of the diversity of people’s background, taking into consideration their race, culture and beliefs. A holistic assessment of a family should include this as standard and it is important to recognise the different approaches and lifestyles and this should reflect the types of intervention that can be provided for multi-cultural communities (Coulshed & Orme, 2006, CCW, 2002 1.6,Milner & O’Bryne, 2009,).


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