We live with the ever present risk of terrorism and violent extremism. It is part of life in contemporary Britain. Yet social work is sleep walking into a worrying new area – that of ‘pre-crime’.
This means, in social work terms, pre-determining which children are likely to go on to be harmed or will go on to become terrorists at some stage in the future. It sounds like something from the Tom Cruise film “Minority Report”.
It has been used in the Troubled Families area and is now being extrapolated out to determine in which families is child abuse likely to happen, and which children are likely to become home-grown terrorists.
By using local authority data, statistical, actuarial and criminogenic data (via algorithms), risk factors are woven together to establish predictions, that point out, or indicate, who is likely to go on to be abused, or, who is likely to become a terrorist.
Social workers need to understand this worrying development so that we point out the ethical and moral issues with this agenda – contributions that importantly distinguish us from the security or policing services.
The idea that we can pre-determine who is likely to be abused or become a terrorist is simply science fiction. It suggests risk in rather linear terms using a causal logic that we can, through statistical mathematics, locate and then resolve it. This is impossible. It represents an Orwellian development for social work and we need to take it on.
The radicalisation policy landscape is influential which is all the more reason for us to be speaking up about this.
The Prevent strategy works with local authorities, education, criminal justice, faith groups, charities, the online world and health to steer people away from radicalisation pathways.
The strategy defines radicalisation as ‘a process by which a person comes to support terrorism and forms of extremism leading to terrorism.’ Extremism is defined as a vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. ‘Violent extremism’ is an ‘endorsement of violence to achieve extreme ends’.
Sections 36 to 41 of the new Counter-Terrorism and Security Act (2015) sets out a duty on local authorities (e.g. social workers) and partners (e.g. teachers, early childhood workers) to provide support for people vulnerable to being drawn into any form of terrorism – and report them to Prevent.
However, there are many very large and currently unanswered questions about this duty:
- What happens if a family refuses to engage with the Prevent option?
- What does this mean for the social justice and human rights agenda?
- Where is ‘community’? And who is defining what this means now?
- Where is family?
- Do we invite extended family in? Are we encouraged to?
- Do we trust them enough?
- Why is child protection the dominant discourse?
Join the panel discussion on the key role of social workers in preventing radicalisation on day one at 2pm.
Each of these questions leads to even more questions. As social workers our emphasis is on helping families and individuals – how might monitoring or reporting those families affect our work?
Was there any thought to how community-led and family-based approaches might offer an alternative to the Prevent option? Are we sanctioned to offer this? Family is an untapped resource; and family group conferences completely underutilised to date.
The relationship between social workers and the police needs to be clear. If social workers are seen as ‘soft police’ then there is no welfare offer – help may instead be experienced as control or monitoring.
Vulnerable people may then be left with few options and this increases pressure and distress for service users living with mental illness.
This work is professionally dominated, driven via a narrow securitising lens and, in my opinion, is seriously blurring the line between liberty and security for us and our service users.
Effective social work practice is achieved through relationships. With violent extremism, which is so evocative and highly charged (and where the consequences can be deadly) there is the potential for risk to be over-exaggerated. The media can heavily influence the paradigm in which we operate.
What is clear is that in this work frequent, high quality supervision will be essential for social workers to remain supported, challenged and confident in their decision-making. Social workers require practice tools that are grounded in and facilitate a relational approach to risk.
I have used the Signs of Safety approach in cases of radicalisation risk. The Signs of Safety model offers a comprehensive approach to analysing danger, existing strengths and safety/protective factors and future safety and utilises a simple judgment scaling process that involves all of the people around the child. I used the danger statement and safety goal tools to help me be very clear about the worries I held for children in a home where extremist views were normalised.
The framework can be used with individuals and family groups, and community groups, to build safety and protection, and this method has offered me a useful and respectful way to work with radicalisation risks and violent extremism. The myth that this is an overly optimistic approach has not been borne out in my work.
Practitioners also need to be politically aware. We need to be able to debate risk and understand how our work is influenced and the role we can play in influencing others.
We need to be clear on what social work can offer, and be aware of our limits. I would argue “pre-crime” is clearly a limit we need to be wary of and speak back to.
I have written to all principal social workers in England asking them about the practice issues they are finding about working with radicalisation risk. We need more practice informed evidence about what works and what may be doing more harm.
Helping families in this highly difficult terrain will not be easy.