What is the overall picture of risk management in children's homes?
Each year we review all the requirements we've made in our children's homes inspections to see if there is any learning for us and the sector. The most frequently made requirements by far are about risk assessments and making sure they are effective and appropriate. Across all types of inspections, inspectors made nearly 9,000 requirements, and around 750 of those were about risk assessments.
Why is this a particularly important area of practice?
We're all in the business of keeping children safe. Managing risk is absolutely essential to that and one of the most difficult things any manager has to do. It's a balance between ensuring children aren't exposed to unnecessary risk but can equally take part in activities that give them opportunities and adventure.
However, I think there is a lot of misunderstanding and we've found much time and energy is put into risk assessments that aren't always effective. People see them as some kind of tick box/covering backs exercise, or something they should do to please inspectors. Risk assessments should be a tool to assess risk and decide whether an activity should go ahead or what measures need to be in place to keep children as safe as possible. We want to encourage professionals and managers to think about why and how they're doing risk assessments, so they serve the right purpose.
What is meant by the terms "risk management" and "risk assessment" in a children's home context?
Risk management is the process, and the risk assessment is the product. Staff should most definitely be assessing risk continually, using their professional judgment. For example, if a 14-year-old girl asks a member of staff at 10pm if they can go out, and won't say where they are going, or who they are meeting, staff shouldn't need to consult a risk assessment on a piece of paper to work out if this is a safe activity.
We would hope the staff member would talk to the child to get more information then work with her to see the risks and what could be put in place to reduce or even eliminate risk. In many instances it is about doing what you would do with your own children. It always comes back to having children's welfare as your top priority. If the girl was going out because her mum had been assaulted by her partner and she wanted to see if she was okay, the staff member could mitigate the risk by going with her rather than saying she can't go out.
Where does responsibility for risk assessment lie?
The regulations state that it is the responsible person - this includes the provider and manager. But everyone who is involved with a child is responsible for keeping them safe.
What does good risk assessment look like?
A good risk assessment should start by identifying existing/relevant hazards for each child. These will vary from child to child. Once the hazards have been identified, you should look to see what the impact of that hazard is, and assess how likely it is to actually happen. Then the assessment should look to see what could be put in place to reduce or eliminate the hazard. It's at that point that a decision should be made about whether the activity or event should go ahead.
We aren't prescriptive about how these things are done. But inspectors will be looking to see that managers have identified risks that are appropriate to that child, that the impact and likelihood of harm is properly assessed, and appropriate mitigating steps have been put in place. They will look at whether risk assessments are updated regularly. Crucially, do staff understand why risk assessment is being used?
What kinds of things would give inspectors cause for concern?
Inspectors frequently see very complicated risk assessments, that include every possible hazard that could possibly befall a child. In some homes we see a standard risk assessment, like a template, where every child is assessed against every hazard even if it's an activity they don't engage with. For example, I've seen a risk assessment for a 10-year-old child, with reference to smoking and drug taking, when the child wasn't involved in either of those activities. We also see risk assessments on activities like "going missing". We all know that when a child goes missing, that's a dangerous activity - we don't need a risk assessment to tell us that.
What are some of the challenges in doing it well every time?
For risk assessment to be effective, it has to be undertaken by staff who know what they're doing - but most importantly - who know the children really well. It's about continually assessing and evaluating risk, keeping assessments as "active" documents that are updated when circumstances change, when risks reduce or increase. A good risk assessment won't just belong to one staff member either - it's important the whole team understands it.
Are there dangers in relying too heavily on risk assessment processes?
Just because there is a piece of paper that says "risk assessment", doesn't mean a child is safe. The assessment has to be appropriate. It needs to make sense to staff and staff need to take the relevant steps to mitigate risks.
Children are sometimes stopped from doing things unnecessarily - and staff then blame the risk assessment, health and safety, or Ofsted. While we don't always know the back story, we hear of children not being allowed into the kitchen to learn how to cook meals in case they hurt themselves.
We're always concerned when we hear that disabled children are denied opportunities to access community or adventurous activities, in case Ofsted doesn't approve.
We also hear about the reverse of this - staff not preventing a child from leaving a home, despite a clear understanding they will be at risk. Often police are told by staff that they didn't prevent the child from leaving because Ofsted says they can't, which simply isn't the case. Legislation allows for staff to take effective action whenever there is a serious concern about a child's welfare. We expect children's home staff to take appropriate action to prevent a child leaving if they know that child will be at risk.
Is there any guidance children's homes can draw on?
It is important people do what works for them in their context and for their children. Carlene Firmin's work on contextual safeguarding is helpful and is now listed in the new version of the government's guidance on Working Together to Safeguard Children.
WHAT DO THE REGULATIONS SAY ON MANAGING RISK?
- Staff should continually and actively assess the risks to each child and the arrangements in place to protect them. Where there are safeguarding concerns for a child, their placement plan, agreed between the home and their placing authority, must include details of the steps the home will take to manage any assessed risks on a day-to-day basis.
- As children will spend significant time away from the home, for example in education or training, at appointments with the youth offending team or for engagement in leisure activities, any assessed risks should be shared with the education provider or service the child is attending if appropriate, so that the service is clear on the action they must take if the child puts themselves at risk while there.
- Children's home staff should take reasonable precautions and make informed professional judgments based on the individual child's needs and developmental-stage about when to allow a child to take a particular risk or follow a particular course of action. Staff should discuss the decision with the child's placing authority where appropriate. If a child makes a choice that would place them or another person at significant risk of harm, staff should assist them to understand the risks and manage their risk-taking behaviour to keep themselves and others safe.
Source: Guide to children's Homes Regulations and Quality Standards, Department for Education, March 2015
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