I went to a meeting this week. Nothing new in that.
We were discussing the children we work with – young offenders. Nothing new in that either.
What was different, however, was the tone of the conversation – there was very little discussion about “risk”.
Now that’s new!
Why risk is over-rated…
The contrast between this meeting and my previous experiences was stark. Because perceived risks were not centre stage in the discussions, the meeting was a lot more:
– Aspirational – what’s the next thing to aim for?
– Positive – what’s gone well so far, how has the young person progressed?
– Forward-looking – rather than concentrating solely on offences
– Profitable – expanded plans for further intervention/s…
When risk was talked about, it was done in a balanced and measured way – neither over-stating nor minimising the realities.
In the last decade or two, risk has become the central issue in many (if not all) fields dealing with troubled young people. Above all this is the case when the child’s own behaviour is a concern: risk of offending, risk of violence, risk of harmful sexual behaviour, risk of self-harm, etc.
To a degree, this is as it should be. After all, our youth justice, Looked After and safeguarding children systems exist in part to mediate and minimise risk.
But in terms of risk from the child or young person, I feel that we often overstate it. We make it more than it is. Worst of all, we locate risk almost entirely within the young person – we pathologise the child… This is wrong.
How to handle risk better – 3 essentials…
After writing dozens of reports for the Courts over the years, I’ve distilled my thinking on risk into some workable principles. I hope they will be useful and help others to keep risk in proper perspective:
• Risk changes over time – it is not a static thing. It changes. Time, place, maturity, mood, illness, age and many other factors can all influence the presence as well as the degree of risk. What was a risk last year probably isn’t the same now. It may not have disappeared. It may even have got worse. But it will almost certainly have changed.
Implications: risk needs to be kept under constant consideration. Previous assessments might not be as relevant now.
• Risk is contextual – always. Where a child is, who they are with, what they are doing, the time of day/night, the degree of supervision present, their emotional state, current events in their life and innumerable other factors, all influence risk.
Implications: instead of asking what risks he/she poses, it’s probably better to ask, “What potential risk/s does this situation present.” Locating risk in the fusion of child and context is a more balanced perspective, in my view. And is much better than making the child or young person alone the locus of it.
• Risk of what, to whom & in what circumstances – these are the key questions when it comes to identifying risk. The interaction of person, place, events, etc. are what constitute the potential for harm. In other words, riskiness is not a generalised phenomenon. It is specific.
Implications: don’t assign “levels of risk” to children, or to anyone for that matter. This implies it is them alone that present a risk. This isn’t the case. Be specific about what the risk is, to whom and how are they are a risk, and in what circumstances? This improves the specificity of assessments, makes for better risk management and more focussed interventions.
Now, having said all that, we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
Having an eye to potential risks is a crucial part of public protection and of well planned therapy and programme planning. But it isn’t the only thing. Arguably, it isn’t even the most important thing. But it is a thing…
Please let me know your thoughts…
– What are your thoughts on risk – do you agree/disagree with the views expressed above?
– How can we improve the way we talk, write about and handle risk in practice?
Please let me know what your thoughts are… Leave a comment below or click here.
Related previous posts…
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© Jonny Matthew 2013