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Saturday, December 28, 2013

Assessing risk in child protection - but what risk?

When one thinks of assessing risk in child protection, one might automatically think about risk to a child. Is the child safe? If not, what needs to be done? Should the child be left with parents or removed? If there are immediate risks, can they be mitigated. These are all important risk questions.

However, there are two other facets of risk that are often not spoken about but can play very crucial roles in assessing risk in a family - risk to the social worker and risk to the agency. Both of these risks are by products of the outrage that occurs when a child is seriously harmed or killed while child protection is involved. There have been a myriad of high profile cases in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Ireland, the United States and elsewhere. Here in Canada, we are awaiting the release of the Hughes Inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair. It is expected to be released early in 2014. Based on prior inquiries that Justice Hughes has done in other provinces, one can expect a thorough report that will make for grim reading. It is these types of reports that are needed but also create a fear response - who wants to have the next high profile case in the media after all.

Phoenix Sinclair
For the social worker, this means that each case decision is also influenced by the risk to the social worker. What is likely to happen if this decision turns out to be riskier and problems occur? When this pressure exists within the decision making process, then there develops a tendency at self protection. This leads to more conservative decision making where getting more intrusive with a family seems like the best path.
So too for the agency or the team managers who do not want to be the next team under public scrutiny. 

Thus, the decisions around what a child needs are influenced by matters that have really nothing to do with the risks to the child.

Some attempts have been made to influence this decision making process by introducing programs such as Signs of Safety. This looks to a family's strengths that can be utilized and enhanced. The goal is to reduce the number of children living away from home. It does require that the agency take more risks that enhancement can occur. The early research tends to be promising. But it does require that the agency be able to tolerate the higher risks. Even more important, is for the politicians to be able to accept the risks.

When things go wrong, politicians have zero tolerance for errors even though errors under any program are inevitable. Child protection decision making is done in a reality of partial information that is almost constantly changing. It is politically difficult to defend the imperfections of decision making when the public is outraged.

There are also factors that child protection cannot solve particularly poverty, crime in neighbourhoods, family breakdowns and unemployment - even those increase risks. Politicians can create social policies that do reduce those risks - but cannot eliminate them.
Thus, while we want social workers to be the best they can at the work they do, no matter how well budgets are managed and case loads are kept low, there will still be errors and fatalities - albeit fewer. This is a very hard argument to sell as a politician but it is reality.


  1. Hi, Peter---

    I found your post, and you bring up a number of really important points that many people don't think about. In particular, that poverty, crime, and unemployment are factors that child welfare agents have zero control over. People who don't work in child welfare have no idea how many factors effect child welfare.

    One thing that is beyond debate is how difficult the child welfare agent's job is. I had a professor in my graduate program for social work who, whenever anyone revealed that they worked for a child protection service, would make the rest of the class applaud. I liked that.

  2. hi peter interesting post I'll look out for future ones. Here in the uk child protection social workers are often "damned if they do and damned if they don't"

  3. Child protection is challenging work for sure.
    David, I agree that there is a constant struggle when child welfare is either seen as too intrusive or not intrusive enough. That partially arises from the unbalanced view that the public gets through the media.

  4. Good stuff, as always, Peter!

    One of the issues for me is the public tendency, driven by the press, to take their eyes off the ball - that a child's parents killed their child - and start to look for someone else to blame. Usually, that's a social worker.

    As you eloquently say, a lot of what we encounter is beyond our control and because of the potentially negative backlash, decisions get veiled in mixed motives.

    The bottom line for me is that we shouldn't be blaming the "good guys".

    Cheers, Jonny.

  5. Hi, Peter and everyone. This is a brilliant article for dressing multiple impressing points such as the risk to social workers and agencies and the errors may energy in the implementation of Sign of safety. There are indeed plenty of factors that child protection cannot control and help a child from harm is absolute more than removing or simply a Intervention with parental Agreement. Reducing poverty, unemployment, crime in the neighborhood and other factors are intimately related to the reduce of child risk.
    Decision making has never been easy. Everyone child ought to have a cared, loved and attentive environment to grow up however should this is not likely to realize what can be done is minimize the harmful factors that prevents child accessing to the right of free from harm. Removing could be the appropriate action where other options are not in the best interest of this child.

  6. hi Peter good content and I agree with the thrust of your thinking. Would like to add an angle close to my heart and that is the extra help a good media image of social work does to help SWs on the doorstep. We need to comprehensively enable ordinary SWs to have a media voice

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