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Social workers are faced with making decisions about risks whilst managing the pressures of limited resources such as a lack of social workers and society’s view of social work (11). This can cause a social worker to be risk averse and become more concerned with avoiding risk to protect themselves instead of taking action that may be right for the service user. 88% of social workers have expressed a concern that cuts in services can put people’s lives at risk and 77% stated that they were unable to manage their caseloads (1). Wales has the second highest vacancy rate of social workers in the UK at 9% with England at 11% (Lombard, 2010).
There are 3 different types of risk (Adams, Dominelli & Payne). These are the risk to service users from others, the risk to service users from themselves and the risk to others from service users.
In the statutory sector risk assessment is a mandatory part of casework as it is within law and agency policy to assess risk to an individual (Healy,2012). S17 and S47 of the Children Act 1989 places a duty on a social worker to investigate when it is believed that a child is at risk of harm. The difference between S17 and s47 is the urgency and seriousness of risks (Beckett, 2010). Risk to the child includes some form of harm and the probability of that harm occurring.
2. Factors of Risk
There are certain factors in a child’s life that may be linked to poor outcomes (Parton, ????) These include low family income, homelessness, parenting capacity, post natal depression in the mother, low birth weight, substance misuse and community factors such as residing in a disadvantaged neighbourhood. Protective factors may include a strong relationship with parents and other significant adults, parental interest and involvement in the child’s education and positive role models. There are also other protective factors if the child is outgoing, has self motivation, has intelligence and plays an active role in family and community life. The more risk factors present the more likely it is that they would experience abuse or poor outcomes (5). Early intervention to identify risks can help to reduce problems.
Identifying the risk and protective factors can give a prognosis on the child’s future development (8). Assessing their needs and risks will help to identify the services that should be in place to prevent further impairment to their health and development (BASW, 2012, 3.2).
In assessment we must recognise the factors that could have harmful consequences and the severity and the likelihood of harm (Beckett, ???). The difficulty in assessing risks is that we may see a high risk factor that may be unlikely to materialise but dismiss low risk factors which may cause more harm long term. There is the potential to reinforce social inequalities as many factors are strongly associated with socioeconomic disadvantage such as single parents, low income and previous institutional care (CCW, 2002, 1.5).
In social work the assessment of children involves analysing the child’s development needs, parenting capacity and family and environment factors (Welsh Government, 2001). Using the assessment triangle gives a holistic view of the child and the influences upon them. Once all the information is gathered it can be easier to identify the areas in which a child is most at risk and how those risks maybe addressed (BASW, 2012, 3.2).
Risk is an aspect of all assessments (Whittington, 2007). The aim of a risk assessment is to consider the situation, decide on the likelihood of the risk happening and aim to reduce the identified risk having a negative impact.
There are different types of risk assessment (Coulshed & Orme, ???). These are preventative, investigative and continuation. Preventative is undertaken before intervention to decide on whether or not to intervene. It involves looking at the situation and assessing the risk factors along with balancing the rights of service users and the responsibilities of the social worker. Investigative is carried out during an initial assessment to identify the current and potential risks. Continuation assessment is balancing the risks of intervention against no intervention. A social worker should evaluate the original situation then acknowledge changes and what effect these changes will have if any at all.
In social work the actuarial and clinical methods of risk assessing are used (Cree & Myers, ?????). The actuarial method uses statistical calculations of probability and how an individual’s behaviour is judged on the basis of behaviours in other people in a similar situation. The clinical method uses personality factors and situational factors relevant to risky behaviour and the interaction between the two.
Adhering to legislation, policy and procedures and the rights of the service user should ensure good practice in relation to assessment and managing risk and protection (Adams, Dominelli and Payne, ????). Legislation and policy shapes and determines the actions, duties and powers of a social worker (CCW, 2002, 6.1). Failure to follow set policies and procedures can result in things going wrong.
4. Skills and Judgements in Assessment
Management of risk is often judged by the outcome and not the process of the assessment (7). When examining a case that has had negative outcomes it is easy to see the presence of heightened risk. This can reinforce the view that the outcome could have been avoided had the risks been realised. Conducting an initial assessment requires interview skills to get the information and reasoning skills to analyse the information and identify risks (CCW, 2002, 4.2).
Assessment is an essential skill in itself (9). It requires effective communication skills to gather the necessary information and critical analytical skills to interpret that information. A social worker will need the appropriate skills to be able to negotiate with a service user or an agency in order to provide appropriate services (BASW, 2012, 2.2.3).
Serious case reviews often highlight the importance of assessment and analysis (Good practice in assessment book). An effective assessment looks at the overall situation to explain what has happened to a child and provides a framework for analysing the needs of the child and the dangers that individuals pose to children. Particular care must be taken so that the assessment does not become over optimistic and minimise the risk to the child. The focus should be on gathering evidence to make professional judgements about whether a child is safe from harm, neglect, and abuse.
Other skills in assessing risk is the ability to predict what may happen in the future in areas of uncertainty (Trevithick, ????). If the information gathered is accurate and up to date and the social worker has a sound knowledge and skill base there is less chance of over or underestimating the risks involved. In order to gain accurate information a social worker should use effective communication and listening skills to pick up on the risks presented.
Communication between professionals and agencies may be difficult as there may be issues of power, different priorities and professional values (10). For example a doctor will be more concerned with discharging a service user once their medical issue has been addressed. A social worker will be concerned that services are put in place to ensure that the service user is safe to return home. Skills and knowledge are frequently criticised in serious case reviews into child protection services and can adversely affect risk management.
5. Risk Management
In a review of child protection services it was identified that mistakes in assessment of risk have been either over or under estimating the risk posed to the child (2). Risk management cannot completely eliminate risks only reduce them. An assessment may decide that the risk of harm to a child will be low but low risk events can still happen. A social worker should use their professional judgement when deciding on actions to take as all options will involve a certain amount of risk (CCW, 2002, 4.1). For example when a child is removed from their family and placed in local authority care they may face other risks such as being unable to settle with a new family. The principles of working in child protection are to maintain the safety, security and well being of individuals. A social worker should use their judgement to balance the possible benefits of a decision against the likelihood of possible harm. They should work with other professionals to make decisions on risk involved so that errors can potentially be reduced (BASW, 2012, 3.1). Lessons can be learnt to improve decision making from the successes as well as the failures. Positive risk taking relies on quality information. Agencies should share appropriate information on those individuals who pose a risk to others or those that are at risk from harm.
A serious case review identified several failings in the protection of Baby P (6). Two of the children in the family were already subject to child protection plans which may be seen as a risk factor. The adults involved had refused to explain P’s injuries. It would have been reasonable to believe that Baby P was at risk if the adults were not willing to provide an explanation if they had nothing to hide. It was recommended that interagency working and communication must improve to ensure that children have a greater level of protection from different professionals. Professionals should recognise and respect each other roles and be trained appropriately together (BASW, 2012, 3.14). Supervision for the social worker in the case of Baby P was inconsistent and often cancelled. When carrying out S47 enquiries a social worker should be supported by their manager and have periods of supervision to review their caseload. This provides the opportunity to view the actions of the social worker from another perspective so that other options can be explored. A criticism of social workers in child protection is over familiarity with a family (10). The social worker may have long term involvement with the family and are unable to take an unbiased view of the situation. Therefore it is important that supervision takes place to gain another perspective (BASW, 2012, 3.13).
Child protection conferences should involve the parents (AWCCP). Professionals should determine how information about the case will be shared with them to ensure that a child is not put at further risk. Unless the criteria for exclusion are met parents should always be encouraged and supported to attend the conference. By attending the conference parents will be clear on what the concerns are, understand the risk to their children and the reason for the involvement of the different agencies. This will ensure that they are aware of the changes that need to be made to protect their children from harm. During the conference professionals involved must consider the risks of harm if the child were to remain at home and how those risks can be managed. A plan will be created which will detail the arrangements for managing the risks identified and how it will be monitored. The child protection plan must consider the wishes of the child and the parents (CCW, 2002, 1.2).
A solution focussed approach can be utilised by the social worker to plan the necessary services required to manage the risk (Creer and Myers). This approach is used when finding solutions to the current situation. A social worker may consider services such as family counselling to explore and understand the issues the family have.
6 Values and Ethics etc
There are times when taking a risk is a positive move (Beckett, ???). It provides an opportunity to learn to manage risk. If a child is over protected they cannot be expected to understand how and when to take risks. If risks are unavoidable then the positives and negatives of the outcome should be analysed. In child protection the dilemma may arise when deciding on whether to remove a child and place them in foster care or remain with the family. As previously identified there are risks in placing a child in foster care. If they are unable to settle they may experience multiple moves. When there are risks of harm to children there will be pressure on the social worker to act quickly but this may be difficult as exploring the risks and benefits effectively may take time.
There are also risks to social workers from aggressive parents when working in child protection (Lindon, ???). The social worker should acknowledge the parents feelings and refrain from arguing back. As the social worker has a responsibility towards the children they should attempt to diffuse the situation to prevent upsetting the children (CCW, 2002, 5.7). The anger from the parents could present a risk to the children and should be acknowledged as such.
A child has the right under Article 19 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to protection from abuse and neglect (WAG, 2008). The parents could also argue that they have the right to a private family life under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998 but if they are subjecting their child to abuse or neglect then this right is over ridden.
There are many uncertainties regarding risk in child protection (Adams, Dominelli and Payne). There may be no right or wrong decisions if it is approached correctly. However, there is always the possibility of a negative outcome which can be difficult for all involved and have serious implications for a child. It is difficult to make decisions where there is incomplete knowledge and uncertainty of a situation. The social worker must use their professional judgement to ensure they have taken as much care as possible to address risks with the information available (BASW, 2012, 2.3.4)
In conclusion risk can be difficult to manage as it contains many areas of uncertainty. The negative factors should be identified early to prevent further risks occurring. The assessment must take into account all areas in a child’s life to ensure a complete picture is gained and all risks are acknowledged. If the social worker has good communication skills then the quality of the information gained should be high and will enable them to make a more informed assessment. If the relevant information is not gathered then appropriate decisions may not be made. Several recommendations were made in the serious case review of Baby P. Supervision is important as it can ensure the quality of a social worker’s practice, provide other perspectives on relevant cases and potentially can improve outcomes for service users. Multi agency working is a requirement in social work. It must be utilised to gain a holistic view of the child and identify various services that can be put in place to manage risks. A service user still may not experience a positive outcome even though the most appropriate services are utilised to reduce and manage risks. If the social worker has carried out their duties correctly in accordance with legislation and policies, identified the risks and worked with others to manage those risks then they can be satisfied that they have done all they can and accept that not all outcomes will be positive.
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