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Care for children in a risk averse context

Warch Ian Milligan as he talks about the challenges of working in an increasingly risk averse climate.
My name’s Ian Milligan. I’m a senior lecturer in the School of Social Work at Strathclyde University here. And I’m also the International Officer for CELSIS. So today I’m going to talk about caring for children in a risk-averse environment, which is a big problem in child care today. And by child care, I mean really any kind of setting where adults look after children, the children’s home, the foster home, could be the nursery school, the after-school activity. The problem seems to particularly effect the UK and other Anglophone countries, such as Canada and Australia, but perhaps elsewhere as well. The problem is caused by the imposition of kind of tick box or paper-based approaches to child protection or health and safety.
And the intention, the aim, is to ensure that children are safe and well looked after. But it’s one of these situations where managements feel they have to be sure that children are being looked after and the workers are not really trusted to do it unless they can show evidence that they’ve carried out risk assessments and suchlike things. It’s having therefore unintended negative consequences. It’s negatively impacting child care in ways that I’ll shortly explain. And this is part of a bigger problem. It’s not just in social work or childcare. Many writers have noticed that we’re living in a very risk-averse environment.
Ulrich Beck called it the risk society, a result that’s come about as a result of anxieties that populations have about various threats, and that governments have got to be seen to be doing something about it. And in terms of social work, this is having a big impact. Kemshall, a writer, has written about this. And she has said that even welfare agencies, people who are supposed to be looking after vulnerable people, somehow become more concerned with quote, “the avoidance of harms rather than the pursuit of the collective good.”
And this makes it very difficult if your job is to provide homely care, a normal environment for children who have got problems but you’re trying to give them an experience of care or play or whatever it is. And yet this is the kind of backdrop. Cree and Wallace, who are social work writers, also say that this is a genuine problem, that workers become afraid to show creativity and initiative and become procedure-driven and overly concerned with self-protection. And that’s one of the themes here that we’ll see that actually all this paperwork and all these procedures often when we discuss them, we seem to feel that it’s really protecting the agency against being seen to make a mistake.
It’s not really so much about children, which of course is not what it’s supposed to be. Now I should say that here in Scotland, the government has recognised that there is a problem here, that you can get over-protection. And in our national care standards for children’s homes, you find this phrase. Children and young people quote, “should enjoy safety but not be over-protected.” So that was done in 2005. And the intention is quite clear, because these national care standards say likewise quote, “your daily life in the care home should be as similar as possible to that of other children and young people.” So people realise there is a problem here.
But perhaps some of you won’t know what I mean by risk-averse practice. And I’m going to quickly list some examples. A recent one, a young man who’s in a children’s home was attending an arts group, playing keyboards, electric keyboards. And he wrote some beautiful words to a piece of music. The artist musician was delighted, praised the young man, and said, this is marvellous. We’ll save that– it was all digital– and we’ll email it to your home. And you can show it to the others and you can play it yourself. Unh-uh. Not that simple. And this place, it said, oh no. You can’t send attachments in the email. That’s blocked by the system.
So the arts worker said, well, it’s all right. I’ll put it on a data stick. You can take it with you and put it into the– No. No. We’re not allowed to use data sticks. Well, how are we going to get this music to your home? Don’t know. And that’s where it was left. The worker was so disempowered and so driven by procedures that they just said it can’t be done. So a child’s music cannot be played in their own home in this instance. Something quite different, sometimes workers think they have to do a risk assessment before a child can go out and play on a bicycle.
Different again, sometimes people feel you have to get a birth parent’s consent if a child’s going on a school trip, even if they’re in foster care. So sometimes even though the parent has not got the daily care of the child, a social worker will be sent to try and find a parent, who may not be easily available if the child’s been in care for years, and get them to sign the form. It’s a misunderstanding. But it’s a kind of practice that’s felt to be somehow this right. Another example that’s given is trips to the beach are now very difficult. You’ve got to do a risk assessment of the beach. Yes. Workers have been told this.
You have to walk around and look for dangerous objects. And even after you’ve completed that and written it up, the children are only allowed to paddle up to their knees unless one of the staff has a current lifeguard certificate. So these are the kinds of examples that come up. Now actually, some of these are not actual policies or practices. They’re kind of myths. And this is one of the things about a risk-averse environment, that workers believe that there are policies or procedures or that you need signatures from certain people even when they don’t. But there’s a feeling that these do exist. Someone’s heard about it somewhere or a practice is started even though it is very negative.
So what are the negative impacts of all this risk-averse practice? And again, perhaps you would understand this very easily and I don’t need to dwell on it. But I’m going to just run through how significant it is for those of us with a responsibility for child care. First off, for children it means that their carers aren’t spontaneous and fun. It makes life a lot duller. But it has a serious impact on child development. Children develop naturally when they get new experiences, when they learn what small risks are. When they learn what it’s like to fall off a bike, they learn turn the corner more slowly and they don’t get a grazed knee, et cetera, et cetera.
This is natural experience and necessary to learning to make good judgments. And some people have talked about children becoming cotton wool kids, that they’re so protected, that play spaces are so safe now, or parents are so risk-averse that children actually don’t get the normal developmental opportunities. There are other problems about this in the care system. This kind of climate means that the creative, energetic worker is disempowered, is discouraged, whereas the lazy worker, we have a field day. It’s great. Oh no, we can’t do that. Oh, I think you’ve got to get permission. Oh, I don’t think we’re allowed to do that. No, no. You’ll need to ask the social worker if that’s all right.
And people can pass out responsibility to others and keep the worker nice and safe. They don’t have to take the risk, so say. And when we sit down and discuss this– and many people realise it’s a problem– we often find that we’re saying what I said at the beginning, that why are these procedures brought in? They seem more concerned about keeping the organisation safe or the worker safe. These are focused ultimately on saying, we did the right thing. Here’s the evidence. I can open a drawer, take out a piece of paper that says we did a risk assessment. Therefore, no matter what’s happened, I’ve done my part. And it’s a kind of abandonment of professional responsibility, in my view.
So what’s to be done about it? And let me be clear, absolutely, that I care about real risks. I am not advocating careless or reckless practice, definitely not. I want children to be safe. That’s what child care workers are paid to do, to do things with children but to keep them very safe. And because they’re not our children, normally we are very careful with them. We’re thinking about what their needs are, what their challenges are, and how to best look after them.
And indeed, there may be a few occasions when a written risk assessment is required, in the more serious circumstances, maybe a group of children around– a group of adults around a child who’s got really high-risk needs or problems. We may decide to sit down and identify difficult situations or trigger situations and write down a plan of how we’ll deal with that. But not for daily routine activities. One response suggested by Gabriel Eichsteller, of ThemPra, Theory Meets practice, one of our NGOs, he suggests that we should make one of our priorities to develop children’s risk competence. So don’t worry about risk-averseness, but develop their risk skills.
And that’s, as I already mentioned, what parents do all the time without thinking, giving children age and stage-appropriate experience of taking sensible little risks, climbing a climbing frame or the low branches of a tree. And depending on their age and stage, we observe them closely if they’re young children. We’re physically close to them. As they get older, we observe from a distance. And as they got older still, we don’t observe them. But we keep them in mind. We know where they are or where we think they are, we hope they are. We look out for them. We wait for their return. So I’m in no way advocating that we stop caring.
In fact, I think we should care fully for these children. But we need to do it in ways that really pay attention to their needs and their rights. And finishing up, and I just want to tell people that actually this problem seems to be much worse in the UK than in many other European countries. We’ve had visits from people from other countries, Denmark and Germany come to mind, people trained as social pedagogues, trained child care workers. And when they come and work in children’s homes here, and other settings, they’re astonished to find that people say, oh, you’ll need to ask about that before you take the child on the bike or go to a park or go to a beach.
They’re amazed that they can’t make that decision, because that’s what they’re trained to do. And so it’s quite clear that these countries also experience the risk society. They’ve got similar social issues and social problems as we have. They’ve got duties to protect children from risk. And yet they seem to manage to do it without this excessively regulatory or disempowered kind of way of doing things. So I just want it to finish by saying to you that I think we need to challenge this. As workers, it’s difficult. But we’ve got to question if we’re asked to do things that are unhealthy or hindering good child care.
We’ve got to be prepared to challenge and to question this as in many other things. That in my view is what it means to be truly professional and truly human, which is what these children need and deserve. Thank you very much.

This talk is presented by a guest speaker, Dr Ian Milligan. Ian is the International Project Advisor with CELCIS, the Centre for Excellence for Children’s Care and Protection, at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.

In this talk we begin to consider the challenge of caring for children in a risk averse context. Ian outlines how as a society we have become increasingly risk averse, a theme touched on in previous weeks, and outlines how this has in turn translated to social work, social welfare and child care practice. Many different settings where vulnerable children and young people will be cared for find themselves impacted on by this and struggle to engage with children in a way that fully meets all of their needs. Ian uses some specific examples from residential child care and foster care to illustrate difficulties that can arise, all justified by required, or believed to be required, risk assessment procedures.

Ian argues that those caring for vulnerable children need to be able to be spontaneous and fun, and that the priority should not be about keeping the worker or the agency safe. Instead, the focus should be on helping children to develop risk competence, paying attention to their needs and rights, and helping them to grow and develop via the management of appropriate risks.

Ian finishes by observing that this issue of risk averse practice appears to be a particular issue in the UK but not in other countries where different traditions and philosophies of caring for vulnerable children exist.

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Caring for Vulnerable Children

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