By Ray Jones
Community Care Live in London in early November was exciting, energising and educative. With more than 3,000 colleagues from across social work and social care participating in a jam-packed programme there were loads of opportunities for learning and reflection.
I attended a crowded session on ‘the key role of social workers in preventing radicalisation’. I wanted to understand how this new responsibility for social workers was developing and being rolled out. I was spooked by what I heard!
Firstly, the keynote panellist from the Home Office positioned this new role for social workers as nothing new. It is what social workers have always done in protecting and safeguarding vulnerable children and adults. It had always, we were told, been central and core to the child protection agenda. Recognising concerns that children and young people might be exposed to radical thoughts, and then motivated to take action themselves, was something that we were told has always been a part of child protection.
Secondly, the police officer who gave a presentation and was one of the panellists emphasised that the Prevent agenda was not only about Islamic radicalisation and extremism but also applied to animal rights and other forms of radicalisation including right-wing extremism (I presume ‘radicalisation’ as a generic category also includes those concerned and taking action about capitalism, environmental issues, and racial and disability discrimination).
The Home Office presenter and the police officer both gave examples of how radicalisation could fit in with the four existing categories of child abuse – neglect, emotional abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. For example, the police officer highlighted that, in some cases, sexual abuse could be a concern when young girls were travelling to Syria with dreams of marrying fighters. But I do not believe they adequately addressed how radical thinking which might lead to radical action should be categorised – and why it should be treated as a child protection concern.
The identification of young people who might have ‘radical’ thoughts is an extension of the role and responsibility of social workers. It is an example of ‘mission creep’ where the state uses existing roles and mechanisms for a different purpose. It is a potential politicisation of child protection.
I am concerned as anyone else about the threat of terrorist attack. This is an issue of crime and community safety and should be dealt with as such.
I am concerned about children and young people finding their way, or being taken, to war zones. But net widening this to a more broadly defined ‘radicalisation’ and child protection issue causes me considerable concern.
Is there now to be a fifth category of child abuse – ‘thought abuse’ – to be added to the existing four categories of child abuse? And are children, young people and ‘vulnerable adults’ to be targeted and tracked for what they might do in the future based on their radical concerns, thoughts and contacts when to date they have done nothing threatening or dangerous?
Ray Jones is professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London.