literature review on the significance of the risk society for contemporary social work practice of social work with reference to examples from practice, examples from current issues and arguments from the literature.


The lack of a clear definition and understanding of risk has played a key role in the current blaming system and defensive practice although according to Paton (1996) the neutral vocabulary of risk attempts to provide a bridge between the known facts and experiences of existence and the construction of a new moral community. Risk originally meant calculating the probabilities of events, both positive and negative and yet increasingly, in social work at least, risk has come to be associated with negativity or adversity: ‘the relative variation in possible loss outcomes’ (Brearley, 1982: 82).

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It is apparent that the authors from the literature review concur that social workers are operating in an ever-changing social, political and cultural environment of human services, supporting people of all abilities, behaviours and expectations. Social workers’ professional autonomy to take risk for the benefit of their clients seems to be restricted by the accountability systems, risk society and the blaming culture in the contemporary social work practice.

The literature review is conclusively suggesting that risk has become a major pre-occupation in social work practice, causing significant obsessions with risks among practitioners because there is no clear definition of risk and as a result different professionals have different perceptions of risk level and severity. Paton (1996) points out that the emphasis on risk has also contributed to the increased role of auditing where social work is subjected to and plays an active part, but the trust in science, technology and experts has undermined social workers while auditing has increased. This process is intimately related to our pervasive concerns about risk which play a key role in the blaming system and new forms of accountability.

Further to this Paton (1996) argues that the increased focus on risk in social work has coincided with the decline in trust in social workers’ expertise and decision-making and the growing reliance on increasingly complex systems of audit, monitoring and quality controls. The media coverage has also contributed to the growing pressure for organisational accountability, risk minimisation and public safety where risk assessment and management has failed. These negative publicities have misconstrued the role of social workers, yet their key role is to identify and assess not only a client’s need for protection from self or others but also public and professional safety.

Paton (1996) suggests that the death of Maria Colwell in 1973 caused a moral panic and preoccupation with culpability, blame and retribution therefore affecting child protection to become more reactive and less optimistic since the 1970s. The reactive approach was inevitable as risk events with physical consequences according to Kasperson et al (1988) often elicit strong public concern and produce extraordinarily severe social impacts, at unanticipated levels. Therefore reaction to eradicate the threats is paramount although the main aim of risk assessment in child protection work is now to gather forensic evidence, prioritise cases and predict risk. It must also be noted that the contemporary risk assessments are meant to be scientific, accurate and effective.

However this is not the case as it appears to be impacting the social work practice as it serves to give credibility to an organisation or social worker at the expense of consumers, limiting any liability when things go wrong. It is therefore reasonable to suggest that a working climate of “risk society” has been created in the social work practice prompting practitioners to find comfort in audit compliance thus (tick a box attitude), hoping that nothing would go wrong that would attract public enquiries or negative media publicity.

Munro (2004) believes that the (tick a box attitude) is created when the organisation introduces more and more formal procedures to guide practice and in the event of a tragedy occurring, they can claim the defence of ‘due diligence’ and show that their employees followed correct procedures in working on the case. A child may have died but the agency staff can show a clear audit trail of what they did, therefore a defensive culture and the protection of the agency can start to dominate over the protection of children.

Creating formal procedures of practice within a social work agency is important but professional supervision and practice support should be strengthened so as to maintain the social work standards. The literature suggests that supervision is one of the key avenues for practitioners to have the time and capacity to reflect on their practice and to identify, discuss and learn from mistakes. The value of supervision for assessing and managing risk in Child Youth and Family Service has gone a long way in team building and in creating organisational culture that allows dialogue with confidence and trust on the part of both the supervisee and supervisor (Stanley, 2005).

Munro (2004) postulates that organisations should encourage its workers to see risk assessment more as a tool that complements professional judgement and encourages constant and critical review while promoting a culture of supervision of workers’ practice issues rather than supervision of administrative processes. Therefore the understanding of key contemporary significance of risk is in its forensic functions and the importance this has for making experts accountable – justifying what they do and why they do it.

Risk assessment tools are supposed to support and guide the practitioners to achieve better results, but some of the risk assessment tools according to McIvor and Kemshall (2002) are primarily to ensure defensible decisions and guard service providers’ reputation against service user’s dissatisfaction and public criticisms or enquiry, hence the preoccupation with accreditation and validity of assessment tools. The constant demands for audit both gives expression to and contributes to the erosion of trust and the expertise and positive knowledge of human conduct on which it was based.

There is need to balance some of the practitioners accountability in child protection as there is danger of focusing too much on service responses to children at risk while giving minimal effort on the child’s own developmental needs.

In New Zealand, a computer-based Risk Estimation System (RES) was developed in the 1990s as a consensual model of identifying areas of severity of abuse, vulnerability of children and likelihood of further abuse. The move towards a child protection approach in New Zealand came with the introduction of the paramount principle in 1992, which privileges child protection services in situations where the rights of the parents are in conflict with the rights of the child. Social workers are mandated, through the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1989 to remove children at ‘serious risk of harm’.

In situations where there are child protection concerns, but the child is not in a life threatening situation or at risk of serious injury or harm, consideration is given to the degree of risk, on how best to protect the child and to time scale a planned monitoring at the initial investigation. Paton (1996) supports this practice by suggesting that the identification of the actual or potential high risk case or situation provides the mechanism for ensuring that children are protected, unwarrantable interventions can be avoided and scarce resources are allocated efficiently. Therefore the emphasis on risk can be understood in terms of the changing political and social climate in which social work now operates in protecting the most vulnerable and making professionals and agencies accountable.

In the field of older people Parsloe (1999) stresses that there is a strong presumption that older people should excise choice and be given opportunities to take risks towards maintaining their independence and self-determination unless or until their capacity to do so is seriously impaired. This notion is acceptable, but there is also a high risk of self-neglect over diet or hygiene, falls or wandering off without the ability to get back home especially with older people living in independent residence. This is sometimes overlooked as the risk-taking model is more promoted than risk minimisation. Within residential care, the issue of risk minimisation is ever present among workers and managers as they are responsible for providing a safe environment and failure to do so may lead to accusations of negligence Parsloe (1999).

This demonstrates that child protection and old people’s residential care have more similarities as their consumers are considered vulnerable to themselves, from other people or service providers. Risk assessment in these two areas of practice is very much on addressing issues of risk minimisation rather than empowerment while practitioners adopt defensive practice, irrespective of the consumer’s wishes. Much of the work is crisis-driven, reactive rather than proactive and in part parenting deficits are also the focus of child protection risk assessment, thus blaming individual parents for being at fault for their children’s predicament.

Trotter et al. (2001) suggest that in Australia, North America and the UK at least, the forensic and political agenda in child protection has overtaken the general social welfare of children, limiting the ability of child protection services to offer genuine support to families. Professionals are therefore justified to focus on the negative rather than positive outcomes and to think of targeting services rather than needs and empowerment. The opportunity to work within the consumers’ perspective is immensely compromised although risk is seen to have different impacts on people depending not only on the age and stage of the person in the life course but also on environmental and social factors unrelated to the individual.

Among these challenges in risk society and in contemporary social work practice, practitioners tend to use the language of risk to legitimate their intervention decisions while narrowing their work in an orderly and focused structure. And yet the social work literature in general suggests that the relationship between worker and client is more crucial in developing trust, cooperation and motivation to change. The politics and language of risk is becoming the major threat to such relationships as we seem to be all one step away from being ‘at risk’ and as a result practitioners and their agencies are therefore forced to play safe and fasten to their policy and procedures so as to avoid costly legal and civil disputes.

Conclusions of your literature review

Based on the literature review it is evident that the predominant approach for social work practice is defensive practice while managers make defensible decisions, thus risk minimising at the expense of the service user as well as reductions of practitioners’ autonomy. There is need for social work agencies to encourage a common language of risk does not compromise their integrity nor restrict capacity. This may reduce conflict in risk assessment and management while promoting a practice that is based on the well being of users and their families, safety of the public and creating a working environment that builds trust, efficiency and accountability. Social work is not only about risk but also about supportive relationships through supervision, practitioners being assisted in their practice and being encouraged to engage freely with their clients.

It is certain that social work practitioners have the skills, the experience and the commitment to work with people at all levels of vulnerability and risk, irrespective of policy and procedures. However the unclear definition and misunderstanding of risk hinders their maximum professional services to those in need of such social services which includes but not limited to face-to-face contact, support, confidence, comfort and provisional resources.

Authors from the literature review suggest that most of social work’s current accountability systems are involuntary, antagonist and suffocate according to Stanley (2005) professional autonomy rather than being objective based on the practitioner’s assessment, and subjective from the individual and family perspectives. This involves participation of individual service users and their carers/families in discussing their interpretations and understanding of risk so as to have a consensual elimination of perceived hazards. The review concludes that the relationship between social work practitioner and client is paramount to effective working and yet is being eroded by the language and politics of risk:


Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society: Towards a new modernity, London: Sage.

Hope, T. and Sparks, R. (2000) Crime, Risk and Insecurity, London: Routledge.

Kasperson,R.E., Renn, O., Slovic, P., Brown, H.S., Emel, J., Goble, R., Ratick, S. (1998) The Social Amplification of Risk A Conceptual Framework, Worcester, Massachusetts, Risk Analysis, Vol. 8, No. 2,

Munro, E. (2004) ‘A simpler way to understand the results of risk assessment instruments’, Children and Youth Services Review, 26: 873-883.

Parsloe, P. (1999) ‘Introduction’ in P. Parsloe (ed.) Risk Assessment in Social Care and Social Work, Research Highlights in Social Work, No. 36, London: Jessica Kingsley.

Parton, N. (1996) ‘Social Work, Risk and “the Blaming System”‘ in N. Parton (ed.) Social Theory, Social Change and Social Work, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Parton, N. (1998) ‘Risk, Advanced Liberalism and Child Welfare: The Need to Rediscover Uncertainty

Trotter, C., Sheehan, R. and Oliaro, L. (2001) Decision Making, Case Planning and Case Management in Child Protection: A Review of the Literature, Melbourne: Monash University.


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