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Risk and vulnerability

How do we define risk and vulnerability in the context of children and young people? Watch Graham McPheat explain each term.
OK. Well, thanks for coming along everyone. This is the first lecture of the first week, in our course, caring for vulnerable children. And when thinking about caring for vulnerable children, a good starting point is thinking about what do we mean by vulnerability? What is it that we’re talking about? And really what we’re talking about there is risk. We’re talking about we manage and assess the risk which vulnerable children face. And that’s what we’re going to be thinking about today. So what do we understand by risk and vulnerability? How do we begin to assess and measure risk? What are the different tools and approaches that we might use? There’s questions about how much risk and vulnerability is acceptable.
What are we willing to go with in terms of children’s circumstances, and when as a state or society that we assess that there’s was too much risk, there’s too much vulnerability? Where do we step in, and how? These are some of the questions that we’re going to be thinking about over the next six weeks. And we’re going to start by just exploring some basic ideas round about risk and vulnerability. So a good place to start when thinking about working with vulnerable children is how we define risk. And there are various different definitions of risk. And some of them are very context specific. Because we are thinking about risk and the context of children and young people.
But there can be risk in relation to other aspects, risks in terms of working conditions in factories. Risks in terms of economics and kind of how businesses run, et cetera. We are thinking about risk in the context of children and young people. And what we’re essentially focusing on is, can you make some sort of prediction about future behaviours or events? And that’s difficult. There’s that unknown element to it. So we’re trying to think about the chance and the likelihood that something might happen. OK? So it’s not always an exact science. It’s trying to make the best judgements, the best decisions that we can at any given time.
And what we’re thinking about, for the children and young people, we’re trying to assess and measure the probability of future harm. And that’s a challenging process. But within that, there’s also the notion that not all risks are bad, that not all risks are to be avoided. And over the course of the next six weeks, you’ll hear some inputs which talk about how we need to expose children and young people to some risks, to allow them to grow and develop. Because otherwise, they don’t learn how to manage risk. They don’t learn how to make decisions and keep themselves safe, and make judgments. So it’s not a case of avoiding all risks. It’s deciding what risks are acceptable?
What risks are we happy to expose children and young people to? And where do we as a society, or a state, or a set of services, need to step in?
So when we’re thinking about risk assessment for children and young people, the starting point is the identification of what sort of risk is it we’re talking about? Is it the risk of being abused– be that physically, be that sexually, be that emotionally? Or is it the risk of failing to thrive, in terms of children growing and hitting the milestones and the markers that we would like them to. Is it a risk of failing to develop educationally, and be able to achieve the best that they can, in that sense? That’s kind of the sense of risk– what is it that we’re trying to identify?
And then, linking that back to this issue of probability and future predictions, in terms of what might or might not happen. And all this is very context specific. Because we’ve got lots of data. And we know lots of different things about some circumstances place children at more risk than others. So we know things about social conditions– poverty, being around certain types of adults, or certain types of people and certain situations– make children more risky, or more vulnerable or not. So that the circumstances and the context within which children live and operate all has an impact in how we assess risk.
And it’s coming back to this notion of what is going to be the impact of them being exposed to this risk? And we can link back to, well not all risk will necessarily be bad. Some are actually necessary, in terms of children growing and developing. So thinking about the different consequences of different risks, and what we’re happy for children to be exposed to, and what we’re not happy. And when we think about what we’re happy– that risk is ambiguous. If I was to ask yourselves today ‘where are the boundaries in relation to what’s acceptable risk, and what’s not acceptable risk?’ There’s different opinions. We hold those opinions differently, individually. But there’s different social, cultural, contextual notions of risk as well.
And at different places, in different times, and different points in history, risk moves in terms of what we see as being acceptable, or not acceptable. So it’s not clearly defined. And it’s not constant. There’s certainly, within a UK context in the current point in time, we know that we’ve got an issue between care and control, in terms of the management of risk. And on one hand, children being perceived to be continually at risk and needing protected, but equally control issues in terms of children being viewed to pose risk to us. And controls need to be in place because of that. And that’s a theme that we’ll pick up in future weeks. How much risk and vulnerability is acceptable?
Well, within the UK and within Scotland, when the state does step in and says, too much risk, and the state needs to take a firmer role, there’s three main reasons why that can happen. One is about parents and adults being unable to offer the care that children need, because of certain things. Some may think its a problem with the actual parenting being delivered. And sometimes it might be more associated with a child’s behaviour. And in week five, you’ll hear more about the Children’s Hearings System in Scotland.
I’m not going to say too much about that today, other than to flag up that these five categories here are the five main reasons why children would be deemed vulnerable and at risk, and potentially be brought into the care system. So these issues are lack of parental control, being a victim of a serious offence, domestic abuse in the household, the young people themselves committing an offence, or being beyond the control of a parent or an adult person. So these are some of the main categories that our society deems is too much. But it does just bring back this question of how much risk and vulnerability is acceptable? What do we consider to be good-enough parenting?
And all the issues up here– drugs, alcohol, mental health problems, promotion of education, emotional support– these are all the categories and criteria that we constantly bounce backwards and forwards when we’re making these assessments of are children vulnerable? Are they being exposed to too much risk? And as a society, we struggle with this. And this is a newspaper headline from yesterday, November, 2014. And it’s reflecting on the fact that because of some high profile cases where children have been murdered or mistreated, we see more children being taken into care. We see the way in which we respond to risk differing. So again, this sense of risk being socially constructed.
So as we move forward over the next six weeks, what we’ll be thinking about is how we further define vulnerability and risk. We’ll think in more detail about the factors that need to be assessed. We’ll think about how we begin to communicate with children and young people and their families as we’re trying to assess our vulnerability and risk. We’ll think about the interactions and interventions that we might have for children and families, on the back of that. And we’ll also reflect on the challenges that are involved in working in and dealing within the system. Thank you very much.

How do we define risk and vulnerability in the context of children and young people?

We are dealing with the prediction of likely future harm which can be a challenging and complex process. This leads us to consider many difficult questions:

  • When and how does the state or society decide that children and young people are being exposed to too much risk?
  • What risks are acceptable and even necessary as we help children and young people to grow and develop?
  • What role does culture and social context play in defining risk and vulnerability?
  • What are the most likely circumstances that cause the state to become involved in the lives of vulnerable children and young people?
  • How do we assess risk factors such as drugs, alcohol and mental health problems when thinking about the care of children and young people?

Consider these questions while watching the short talk.

The ‘See Also’ section below has a link to the newspaper article mentioned by Graham in his talk.

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Caring for Vulnerable Children

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