Hazily defined and a culture of risk: how can social workers properly approach risks of future emotional harm?

Simon Haworth reflects on the definitions of risks of future emotional harm, and how practice can adapt to an issue of increasing prevalence

Photo: Fuzzbones/Fotolia

by Simon Haworth

I was fortunate to recently present at a conference arranged by the Transparency Project, entitled ‘Risk of Future Emotional Harm – justified grounds to remove children?’ The panel and attendees included parents, social workers, lawyers and academics. Many present shared deep concerns about how emotional harm is constructed and assessed in practice and care proceedings.

This concern happens within a context where Andy Bilson has identified very significant increases in the numbers of child protection plans based on concerns of emotional harm in the last ten years.

There can be grave and profound outcomes for children and their families if ‘risk of emotional harm’ is identified, including the removal of children from their birth families.

I approach this topic not from a position of criticising social work, rather hoping for positive developments in practice within the rather opaque and complex area of emotional harm.

So, firstly, what do we consider to be emotional harm? Within the Children Act 1989, emotional abuse is defined as:

‘The persistent emotional maltreatment of the child such as to cause severe and persistent adverse effects on the child’s emotional development…’

The concepts of persistence and severity are of importance in this definition, meaning that the risk of emotional abuse should incorporate these significant concepts. However, the prospect of emotional neglect significantly expands the span of emotional harm. In official definitions of neglect:

‘…It [neglect] may also include neglect of, or unresponsiveness, to a child’s basic emotional needs’ (Working Together Guidance, 2018).


This is where the waters become far murkier. The scope of these categories can be understood to be immense, incorporating for instance lack of attention, nurturing, caring or supervision and guidance. A far broader brush than the severity and persistence that should be key to the understanding of emotional abuse.

Assessments of these rather hazy classifications of harm are being undertaken within a context where risk can be a dominant discourse in social work practice to avoid uncertainty and potential mistakes that may lead to public, media and government criticism and scapegoating. Perhaps this is where the greatest concern should lie in terms of our practice?

A second question is whether through looking for risk of emotional harm we often confirm its presence? Certainly, by focusing on the identification of risk as a certainty, social work can exclude alternative views or positions about ‘risk’ that may challenge. Then the inherent disconnect between risk of potential future harm and actual events of child harm occurring can be forgotten. If we expect risk to be there, it is easier to find and confirm.

If we view risk as some objective reality this can make it even more difficult for those subject to our assessments to challenge them. Risk of emotional harm can be decided upon early on and further work can be focused solely on managing and mitigating this risk. Practice processes can then contribute to the probability of emotional harm being treated as a given and fixed entity.

In court, this can sometimes be reinforced through the opinions of experts such as psychologists, who tend towards an individualising narrative that excludes wider social forces.

Investigation and removal

My third question is do our assessments and judgements consider the potential emotional harm engendered through the processes of investigation and removal?  There is no simple answer to this. However, I believe that we must always consider the risks of emotional harm to whole families involved in the removal of children to alternative care or the involvement of child protection services within our assessments.

There is inherent emotional harm in this, which can be compounded by further social sanctions, such as loss of accommodation and benefits, stigma and much more. As Carolan et al state: ‘It is impossible to describe and capture the extent of the emotional devastation that is involved in…permanent removal and loss of custody of your children’.

My practice experiences have taught me that separation is brutal and emotionally damaging for parents and siblings alike, thus constituting other forms of emotional harm. Certainly, siblings can find it very hard to understand why their brother/sister has gone, and self-blame can ensue. Separation at any age is hard to understand and accept, but as a child it can be overwhelming and devastating.

Research suggests that social workers can tend to focus on risks within families, perhaps excluding exploration of different contexts of risk, including the potential emotional harm of placing children in alternative care arrangements. These potential risks are much harder to assess, as it is impossible to state what would have happened had a child remained with their family.


So what does this all mean for social work practice? In my opinion effective assessments and analysis of ‘risk of emotional harm’ must be based upon principles of partnership with families, clearer understanding of what constitutes emotional harm in our practice and genuine recognition of the potential emotional harm engendered through child protection investigations and removal of children from their birth families. We must value the knowledge of family members in these processes and mutual trust is central to this. Practice that is valued and experienced as supportive is clearly more risk-tolerant and relationship-based.

However, this involves embracing uncertainty and ambiguity, so the role of social workers own emotions and risks of ‘emotional harm’ are influential. In practice feeling worried can be a constant and such worry can be managed through looking for certainty, avoiding complexity and thus constructing risk of emotional harm as definite and static, to the potential detriment of children and their families.

In my opinion, support, collaboration and managing anxiety are thus key to confident approaches to working with risks, high on care and empathy, and key to avoiding disproportionately authoritarian and control dominated social work responses, short on care and empathy.

Going forward, I think three further questions need to be considered:

  1. Do the current debates questioning whether social work is supportive and protective, or punitive and repressive, need to frame discussions on the risk of emotional harm, or is this too simple?
  2. How can assessments and judgements more effectively and respectfully consider the probability of future emotional harm, its likely severity and impacts for children? How can we return to being confident with safe uncertainty?
  3. How can we move from a system where the assessment of risk of emotional harm is the domain of professionals to a more collaborative approach where families can effectively play their part in assessing and managing such risks?

Simon Haworth is a social work academic at the University of Birmingham. He tweets @SiHaworth. 

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5 Responses to Hazily defined and a culture of risk: how can social workers properly approach risks of future emotional harm?

  1. Anna October 20, 2018 at 8:35 am #

    I think if we remove risk adverse practice and one way to do this is to remove the constant scapegoating and blame culture that exists in social work Ofsted are part of the problem they shame the local authority and then someone is sacked people livelihoods are at stake so they become risk adverse in decision making so it seems to me asking such questions about how social workers can do better it is not social work but society media and the government how can they treat us better and then perhaps social workers can do their very best for children and their patents

  2. Sarah October 21, 2018 at 9:40 am #

    First step would be to focus on ‘likelihood’ rather than ‘risk’ which is the correct definitions. Child protection plans should not be based on risk.

    • Janie October 25, 2018 at 11:23 am #

      Sarah a child protection plan is based upon a threshold of “a child suffering or likely to suffer harm”. Harm or “likelihood” is evidenced through the s47 process, the keyword here is evidenced based practice.
      If a child has suffered an injury or witnessed domestic violence that is identified risk not likelihood.

  3. Duncan October 22, 2018 at 1:38 pm #

    I agree with the main points in the article. For me, the rise in the number of child protection cases where emotional harm is a factor, correlates with a rise in understanding around domestic abuse. I am a children’s social worker and domestic abuse is a factor in nearly all of my cases. My understanding is that previously, domestic abuse was seen as a adults services responsibility. It was also probably the case that the victim was left to deal with the issue themselves. Now, thankfully, there is increased awareness around the issue of domestic abuse and with this increased awareness around the impact it can have on a child. A children’s social worker supporting a family where domestic abuse is a factor will likely be assessing the emotional impact (harm) which that situation is having on the child. The problem is that emotional harm is still hazily defined and the way domestic abuse impacts on children is not simplistically defined. Emotional Harm is difficult to evidence and quantify. So therefore, a further question for you to consider may be: how can children’s social workers most effectively respond to the issue of domestic abuse?

  4. Cheryl October 23, 2018 at 7:56 pm #

    It is so refreshing to hear healthy debates regarding current SW practice. I believe that should balance ‘risk’ with resilience factors within the family and the child when completing assessments – working with not to families. Where ever possible we should support the family and recognise them as the experts in their situation ,building on their strengths whilst supporting them to be the the parents / caters they want to be.