We need to talk about the dangers of overestimating risk

Social work lecturer Rhian Taylor discusses the culture of assessing risk highly, and why it's not as consequence-free as you might think

steering wheel
Driving offences considered 'risk of serious harm'. Photo: Bob B. Brown/ flickr

By Rhian Taylor

I was first alerted to the tendency to overestimate risk in social work when one of my colleagues was doing a risk assessment on a young person who lived on my street. In youth justice assessments, one of the factors assessed is a young person’s neighbourhood, with a score of four meaning there is a very high correlation between the neighbourhood and a person’s offending behaviour.  My neighbourhood was given a score of three, meaning it was a risky area – an indication that poverty, unemployment, substance abuse issues were having a real impact on young people.

A culture of assessing risk highly

I don’t want to sound defensive about my estate – it is an area of social housing, but it is also in Tunbridge Wells and is probably one of the nicest social housing estates in the country.  I’ve lived on the estate for over 10 years without experiencing one incident of crime or anti-social behaviour. If a nice estate in Tunbridge Wells is assessed as risky, how would an area of more significant deprivation be assessed?

This example is the tip of the iceberg. I began to observe a culture in youth justice of assessing risk highly. The assessment form which is aimed to identify risk of serious harm – defined by the Youth Justice Board as the likelihood of causing to others “death or injury, either physical or psychological, which is life threatening and or/traumatic” – was being used on more and more young people.

Risk of serious harm?

Service users who had got into any kind of violent incident, for example a drunken fight with a peer, and increasingly those involved in car crime were all being assessed. Whilst, “death or life threatening injury” can occur through some of these offences, particularly a serious driving offence, it still seemed a long leap to think that many of these children were likely to really pose a threat of serious harm to the public.

So what is happening here? Why is risk getting overestimated and what can we do about it? I have three main observations. The first is well documented: social workers are scared of making mistakes. They are scared of missing something, scared of underestimating risk in a situation. We all know how serious the consequences of this can be on our professional careers: disciplinary action, the media, and now Mr Cameron is threatening jail sentences on those who fail to identify risk situations.

No consequences

A second key reason for overestimating risk is that there are few negative consequences for estimating too highly, whilst a low estimation of risk can be disastrous on all fronts.  It might mean there is more paperwork and sometimes more input is necessitated, but practitioners seem willing to accept these consequences. This is, after all, so much better than the consequences of getting it wrong and missing something. As a youth justice manager, I signed off all the risk assessments and in my management role there were no negative consequences to agreeing assessments at too high a level – it was only principles that made me question these decisions.

Needle in a haystack

I always remember Eileen Munro talking about the issue of overestimation of risk in a Panorama documentary some years ago. She was discussing Baby Peter and the increase in referrals following this case.  She described looking for the very serious life threatening incidents of child abuse as “looking for a needle in a haystack”. “When you make the haystack bigger”, she said “it is much more difficult to find the needle.”

The third reason why the culture of overestimating risk in youth justice has gone unchecked is the disempowerment of the client group. Hundreds of young people will have risk of serious harm assessments on computer systems in local authorities and will have no idea that they are there, or what is being said about them. Although in theory these assessments are available to young people, I have never known a young person ask to see them. They are long, complex assessments, full of jargon.


If there was this kind of assessment about my child on a system somewhere, I’d insist on seeing it, but this is not a service group of articulate, empowered parents. The disadvantage and perceived deviance of young offenders and their families mean their participation and voice in both their own intervention, and the service as a whole is very limited, perhaps much more than other areas of social work, because  it is so rare for a parent or young person to ask to see their written assessments, and even rarer for them to challenge the professional’s view.

But there are consequences to the haystack getting bigger. Ultimately the service will have more work, practitioners will spend more time on computers completing the necessary paperwork and implementing risk management procedures on young people who don’t need them. And, at some point, if it hasn’t happened already, attention will be distracted from a really dangerous situation and something of great importance be missed.

More from Community Care

One Response to We need to talk about the dangers of overestimating risk

  1. @Kslegalmouth April 23, 2015 at 6:55 am #

    You make a good point re there being little challenge outside of the court arena but in respect of care proceedings there is a new focus on the need to forensically prove risk to justify removal. This has been confirmed in the recent Re: A and the Re: J case reports, which i wrote about here https://childprotectionbarrister.wordpress.com/2015/04/13/re-j-court-of-appeal-endorses-the-presidents-judgment-in-re-a-also-known-as-the-a-tottering-edifice-built-on-inadequate-foundations-judgment/