National guidance for child protection in Scotland 2014

This guidance has been superseded by the 2021 version .

Identifying and Managing Risk

295. Working with risk is at the heart of child protection. Staff must have the training, tools and confidence to apply their professional judgement in a highly uncertain, complex and rapidly changing environment. Identifying concerns that require child protection actions in a timely fashion is central to effective action to support children. For this reason, the importance of good, accurate risk assessment within child protection cannot be overstated. Decisions on intervention, supports offered or compulsory measures required to immediately protect the child are dependent on professional analysis of accurate and relevant information and robust decision-making. Failure to properly identify risk can lead to serious, and even fatal, outcomes for children. The National Risk Framework to Support the Assessment of Children and Young People (2012) aims to support and assist practitioners at all levels, in every agency, in these tasks.

296. This part provides a framework for identifying and managing risk while the next chapter outlines the common stages in responding to concerns about a child's safety. The two chapters should be read in conjunction with each other. The framework for identifying and managing risk should be woven throughout the processes that surround this complex area of practice.

The nature of risk

297. As defined in the part setting out definitions of key concepts, risk is a part of everyday life and can be positive as well as negative. In the context of this guidance, risk is the likelihood or probability of a particular outcome given the presence of adverse factors in a child's life. From a child protection perspective, it is the risk of 'significant harm' that is central here: where concerns are raised about the potential significant harm to a child, they should be considered child protection concerns. There are no absolute criteria for judging what constitutes significant harm: sometimes, it can be a single traumatic event, such as a violent assault or poisoning; often, it is a combination of significant events which can interrupt, change or damage the child's physical and psychological development. The challenge for practitioners is identifying which children require protective measures.

298. When considering the immediate needs of a child or young person once a concern about their possible safety is raised, it is essential that practitioners consider the following questions.

  • Is this child or young person at immediate risk?
  • What is placing this child at immediate risk?
  • What needs to happen to remove this risk now?

299. The GIRFEC approach stresses the importance of understanding risks and needs within a framework of the child's whole world and wellbeing. Every child needs to be healthy, achieving, nurtured, active, respected, included, responsible and, above all, safe. When assessing a child all staff should therefore be alert to the potential risk factors in their life. The GIRFEC 'practice model' presents a series of tools that are integral to the use of risk assessment: the Wellbeing Indicators; the My World Triangle; and the Resilience Matrix. In some cases where a risk assessment is being undertaken, a Child's Plan may already be in place and this should be used and added to, paying particular attention to any new areas that may result in adverse outcomes for a child or young person.

300. The Wellbeing Indicators provide the broad framework for identifying a child's needs. They do so under eight headings, which should form the basis for single planning around the individual child: safe; healthy; achieving; nurtured; active; respected; responsible; and included. These headings are used to identify what needs to change in the Child's Plan and how progress on outcomes should be monitored and recorded. Because of their role in Child's Plans (and 'Child Protection Plans'), they are a key element in the identification of concerns and management of risk.

301. The My World Triangle serves as a starting point for considering what risks might be present in a child's life. The Triangle focuses attention on the three dimensions of a child's world: the child themselves; their family; and their wider environment. Once a concern has arisen, the Triangle is a useful tool for gathering information as part of an investigation, focusing attention on areas where there may be risks of significant harm or assessing the factors that have caused the concerns to arise, as expressed in the following diagram, and help identify where child protection procedures to support the Child's Plan may be.

my world triangle

302. Practitioners using the My World Triangle will need to consider who is best placed to provide information in relation to the specific areas of a child's life. This will include other practitioners and services, but also the child and family. The five key questions practitioners should consider are the following. [40]

  • What is getting in the way of this child or young person's wellbeing?
  • Do I have all the information I need to help this child or young person?
  • What can I do now to help this child or young person?
  • What can my agency do to help this child or young person?
  • What additional help, if any, may be needed from others?

303. Clearly, not all the issues considered under the triangle will involve risk factors. Together, though, they provide a comprehensive outline of areas to be considered when assessing a child's circumstances. In addition, consideration also needs to be given as to whether Compulsory Measures of Supervision might be necessary.

Identifying vulnerabilities and the need for risk assessment

304. Using the My World Triangle to identify risk factors is the first step in assessing risk. The next step is to look at how those factors impact on the individual child. The Resilience Matrix developed by Daniel and Wassell [41] provides a framework for weighing up particular risks against protective factors for the individual child. By helping practitioners make sense of the relationship between the child's levels of vulnerability or resilience and the world around them, the matrix may also help highlight areas of risk that need more comprehensive or specialist assessment and analysis. As the diagram below shows, the matrix can be used to examine factors in relation to:

  • vulnerability and unmet needs;
  • adversity;
  • strengths or protective factors; and
  • resilience.

305. This step marks the start of the process of 'unpacking' the individual child's circumstances and exploring their potential impact. The child's circumstances can be plotted on each of the two continuums, allowing the practitioner to see where the impact of these circumstances places them within the matrix and, therefore, how at risk they are:

  • resilience within a protective environment (low risk);
  • resilience within adverse circumstances (medium risk);
  • vulnerable within a protective environment (medium risk); and
  • vulnerable within adverse circumstances (high risk).

risk matrix

306. Where it emerges that a vulnerable child is living in a situation with a high level of adversity, a detailed risk assessment should be carried out and advice sought from professionals with specialist knowledge and skills, for example, working with parental problematic alcohol or drug use, or children with disability or communication difficulties.

307. The National Risk Framework to Support the Assessment of Children and Young People (2012) [42] aims to support and assist practitioners at all levels, in every agency, to be able to approach the task of risk identification, assessment, analysis and management with more confidence.

Assessing risk

308. Risk assessment is not static, nor can it be separated from risk management. Risk factors can reduce over time, or conversely, increase. Equally, changes in a child or family's circumstances can strengthen or limit protective factors. The process of identifying and managing risk must therefore also be dynamic, taking account of both current circumstances and previous experiences, and must consider the immediate impact as well as longer-term outcomes for children.

309. Risk assessments are needed in numerous different situations, but there are two scenarios that are worth reviewing:

  • where significant harm may arise from a single event; and
  • where significant harm may result from an accumulation of events or circumstances.

Risk assessment of a single event

310. In some child protection circumstances, urgent action is needed to protect the child from any further harm and the immediate safety of the child is the priority consideration. Where such concerns arise and can be immediately verifiable - for example, sexual assault or injury - risk assessment must be carried out straight away in order to guarantee the child's safety.

311. However, once these steps have been taken, practitioners will need to determine the longer-term safety of the child. Risk identification and management at this stage will focus on the likelihood of future significant harm to the child, the family's capacity for change and the interventions needed to reduce risk of that significant harm.

312. In other circumstances, a specific, individual concern may be raised about a child and professional judgement will be needed to determine the likelihood and scope of any significant harm. Further investigation may be required to determine the nature and circumstances of events, and a balance will need to be struck between understanding what has happened and what may happen.

Risk assessment of accumulative concerns

313. Children are often identified as being at risk of significant harm not as a result of a one-off incident but rather because of increasing, ongoing concerns about their circumstances. These concerns may appear relatively minor in themselves but, together, trigger a need to act.

314. There may also be a need for ongoing assessment of a child who is already subject to child protection actions. Practitioners will need to assess whether there have been any improvements in a child's circumstances - for example, an increase in parenting capacity - and whether there are still important unmet needs.

Managing risk through Child Protection Plans

315. Having identified risks to a child and their actual or potential impact, the next step will be to consider strategies and interventions for reducing those risks. This will form part of the Child Protection Plan, incorporated within the Child's Plan. Again, consideration should be given to immediate and short-term risks as well as longer-term risks to the child. Objectives should be set out following the criteria SMARTER: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timebound, Evaluate and Re-evaluate.

316. Child Protection Plans, which have been incorporated into the Child's Plan, should set out in detail the perceived risks and needs, what is required to reduce these risks and meet those needs, and who is expected to take any actions forward including parents and carers (as well as the child themselves). Children and their families need to understand clearly what is being done to support them and why.

317. Any interventions should be proportionate and clearly linked to a desired outcome for the child. Progress can only be meaningfully measured if the action or activity has a positive impact on the child. The Wellbeing Indicators can help to measure this progress. The Wellbeing Indicators can help to measure this progress. The Child Protection Plan which is incorporated into the Child's Plan should include a detailed explanation of specific needs, risks, interventions and desired outcomes under each indicator.

318. They should also clearly identify:

  • the key people involved and their responsibilities;
  • outcomes and timescales;
  • support and resources required and, in particular, access to specialist resources;
  • the process of monitoring and review; and
  • any contingency plans and whether Compulsory Measures of Supervision should be required.

Risk assessment skills

319. Developing a suitable risk assessment procedure is only one part of risk assessment. Undertaking risk assessments is a complex and demanding process and practitioners need to be equipped with the necessary skills and support to do this. This includes not only the use of a risk assessment tool itself, but also the knowledge base and skills that are required to inform professional analysis and evidence-based decision-making.

320. Staff need to understand their own roles and responsibilities towards children and the role of other services. Knowledge of child development and the impact of abuse on children is an essential component of risk assessment, as is understanding the need for good communication and information-sharing skills. It is important that practitioners are aware of the latest thinking on how risk indicators affect children, how they can interact together, different tools for identifying these risks and the appropriate actions to take, and the efficacy of existing and new approaches to supporting children [43] .


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