Meet the social workers tackling extremism

Is radicalisation a form of abuse? Alex Turner meets social workers and mental health professionals who are combining safeguarding with anti-terrorism work.

Andrew Ibrahim, jailed in 2009, whose mother has contributed to anti-extremism training

“I had an alert from my community team colleagues about someone demonstrating a lot of sympathy with terrorist activity,” says Fiona Banes, a social worker based at Bristol prison. “It was fairly sophisticated. They suggested they were planning to make bombs and had quite concrete plans.”

Banes, acting team leader at Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership Trust, is describing some of the work the trust’s social workers and health colleagues are doing to prevent vulnerable people being radicalised by extremist groups. So how did her team handle that case?

“That was managed in terms of trying to get them into groups, to try and develop critical thinking, empathy and form trusting relationships,” says Banes. “We were open and honest about our need to liaise with various departments about the sort of threats, plans and knowledge they were discussing.”

This is the government’s Prevent strategy in action. People identified as being at risk of radicalisation can –with their consent – be given multi-agency support (known as ‘the Channel programme’) whereby NHS agencies, local authorities, the police and community groups, work to divert them away from the risk of radicalisation.

Prevent, which is facing renewed scrutiny at a national level following the killing of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich last month, was launched by the last Labour government to combat extremism. Since then it has become increasingly entwined with adult safeguarding, particularly after the coalition “re-focused” the strategy in 2011 to prioritise individuals deemed to be at risk of radicalisation but who have not yet committed terrorist actions.

Banes admits that tackling extremism isn’t the most obvious fit for social workers. “If you’d told me, when I was signing up to my social work training, that this would eventually be part of my remit, I’d have looked at you with disbelief,” she says.

But a training video that featured the mother of Andrew Ibrahim, a Bristol man jailed for terrorist offences in 2009, brought home the need for preventative work in this area.

In the film, Ibrahim’s mother discussed whether agencies could have intervened earlier in her son’s case, which ended with a minimum 10-year imprisonment. Her contribution resonated with Banes, who has a “clear grasp of the ramifications” of long sentences on similar young men.

“If we see being radicalised as a form of psychological abuse, it does fit neatly within safeguarding,” she says. “It gives us a good framework for getting all potentially relevant agencies round the table to see what we can bring to it to help and support that person with a view to protecting them from further exploitation and harm.”

A focus on partnership working has been key to Avon and Wiltshire’s success in implementing Prevent on the ground, says Hugh Jupp, the trust’s safeguarding lead. The trust won a ‘best of Prevent’ award for its efforts earlier this year.

One current case of a young man with learning disabilities highlights the role played by different agencies. His neighbours overheard him making a number of statements they felt were “extremist”. They reported these to the man’s housing officer, who in turn passed the concerns to the police.

Meanwhile the man had been referred to a mental health service but had made no further contact after attending an initial assessment, during which time he made a number of statements about being involved with a radical group.

A police risk assessment led to a multi-agency Channel meeting being arranged, including the police, mental health and housing staff, to share and collect information. At a subsequent review it was agreed that there was evidence that the man was at risk of being exploited by a known extremist organisation.

The housing officers and mental health service paid the man a joint visit, where he was offered a number of support options. These included help from a religious leader to explore his religious beliefs, referral for a tenancy support worker and referral to social services for a community care assessment. The case is ongoing.

“If we identify someone, it’s a matter of assessing them and finding out what their support needs are,” says Jupp.

“Like any form of risk assessment, we look at their potential to cause harm. Prevent is about early intervention. People who are expressing extremist views are vulnerable to being exploited. This work is about challenging that and helping them to move away from it.”

Building strong community links has been vital. Jupp attends a number of local forums, including Building the Bridge – a project driven by local muslims that is designed to promote greater understanding between Bristol’s different communities.

The trust’s preventative work on radicalisation has also benefited from the strong relationships between the NHS, local authorities and police that have been fostered through longstanding joint working in areas like domestic violence.

Last year ministers raised concerns that implementing Prevent was diverting safeguarding leads from organising training in areas such as the Mental Capacity Act. At the moment, the majority of Prevent-related referrals to Avon and Wiltshire come via the police and numbers are relatively small – about one or two a month. So how has the trust incorporated the Prevent cases into its practice without compromising other safeguarding priorities?

“The issue for everyone around Prevent is that this is low-volume, high-risk stuff, so how do you raise practitioner awareness?,” asks Mark Dean,  the trust’s assistant director and head of safeguarding.

Avon and Wilshire’s approach has been to adapt the national Prevent training for local needs and embed it within the mental health trust’s induction process and main safeguarding sessions.

Between 40 and 50 staff per month have received the training since December 2012. The aim, says Dean, is to reach a “critical mass” of understanding across the service.

The nature of a preventative strategy – where ‘success’ is extremism not happening – makes it impossible to predict what outcomes might have occurred had no intervention been made. “It’s about proving a negative,” says Dean.

But social worker Banes expects her colleagues will be drawing on their training in day-to-day practice.

“My eyes and ears, and the team’s are much more open to considering it now,” she says. “We can only do our best and be creative, but the group’s pretty good at that.”

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