In Systemic Fostering

5-step guide to risk assessment for foster carers

5 Step guide to risk assessment for foster carers

One of the big questions we should all ask ourselves when conducting a risk assessment any kind of risk is “how likely is this particular outcome?”

Asking questions like that invites us to think about risk logically and clearly, even at a time when we feel really challenged by whatever we’re facing.

In this blog post we’ll talk about a model for assessing risk that many foster carers (and lots of social care practitioners) find really useful — especially for assessing risk in really complex situations.

This is the second in a series of articles about risk, written by the team at Lika Family Fostering. If you haven’t read the first article in the series, about what risk is and what risk means in a foster care situation, you might want to start there and then come back to this article.

Munro’s 5-Stage Model for Assessing Risk

Professor Eileen Munro created a five-stage model for assessing risk in child protection scenarios. It translates well to foster care situations, too – particularly in how we talk about and name risk.

At Lika, we’re drawn to these ideas as it reminds us that people and their behaviours are not always predictable. It’s important that, as foster carers and fostering professionals, we’re able to “sit with” the uncertainty fostering regularly makes us wrestle with, and understand how to manage it.

Munros 5-Stage Model for Assessing Risk

It’s important for foster carers to be able to sit with uncertainty when assessing risk.

The young people we look after have often experienced life in quite challenging circumstances. Knowing this invites us to be both compassionate and realistic when responding to the worries we have for our young people. It’s an illusion to think that we can ever eliminate risk altogether.

Munro’s model and risk assessment in foster care

Professor Munro’s model is an essential part of Lika’s social work practice in helping us understand and respond to risk. However, we also ask our foster carers to use this model to plan for meaningful conversations with young people that talk directly about whatever the foster carer is worried about — avoiding ambiguity and the potential for misunderstanding.

Taking this approach reminds us that we’re not here to make moral judgements about the behaviours of our young people. It helps us to move away from thinking about people or things in terms of being “good” or “bad”, but rather to the idea of balancing harm and safety when carrying out a risk assessment.

We use Munro’s framework to ask ourselves several key questions in the assessment of risk. It helps us to be critical of our thinking and what is guiding our understanding of what we’re worried is or may be happening.

  1. What is or has been happening?
  2. What might happen?
  3. How likely are those outcomes?
  4. How severe are the consequences?
  5. What is our overall judgement of the risk? (A combination of likelihood and severity).

An example of risk assessment in foster care

Let’s use Desiree, a young person in foster care, as an example of how a foster carer is coached by their supervising social worker to talk about their worries around risk.

Desiree is a 14-year-old White British young person born in London. Desiree has lived in a number of foster placements since being in care the past eight months.

Desiree does not always return home for her 7.30 pm curfew and has recently started spending more time away from the placement with another teenager, who is presumed to be older than her.

risk assessment in foster care

Desiree was placed in foster care on a voluntary basis by her parents.

No one in the professional network knows who he is, his exact age, background or where he lives, aside from a photo of him shown by Desiree. Desiree doesn’t like talking about him and avoids the conversation when asked.

Desiree has recently started to smoke cannabis and can come home under the influence. Desiree’s parents have said she can’t return home until she “sorts herself out” and can follow the rules like her siblings.

Desiree was placed into foster care on a voluntary basis by her parents. Desiree’s relationship with her parents is strained. Desiree says she would rather be in foster care.

Desiree attends school full-time and has above-average grades. However, lately she is not as interested in school. Desiree is chatty and affectionate; however, this can also change quite quickly if her foster carer probes too much about her life and choices she makes.

In this example, worries that might arise in a discussion about Desiree might be:

  1. Desiree’s cannabis use
  2. Lowered school motivation
  3. Desiree being involved with an unknown male.

To demonstrate Munro’s Five-Stage Model in action, let’s use the combination of Desiree’s cannabis use and her being involved with an unknown male as the dilemmas we want to better understand.

READ MORE: How to support a foster child who is using drugs

Possible solutions for Desiree

Applying Munro’s model, the first question we need to ask is, “what is or has been happening?

(We will limit our answers to four ideas for this example, but in reality you shouldn’t put a limit on the number of ideas that come to mind. Sharing multiple ideas about a problem creates a space to be broad in our thinking. Behaviours happen in a context, such as places and time, and in certain relationships. So, there’s lots to think about.)

Here are some ideas for Desiree’s situation:

  • Desiree has just come into your care after her previous carer ended the placement and she has needed to adjust to new adult relationships. This has been difficult for her. She feels rejected.
  • Desiree doesn’t know if or when she can return home; it’s a confusing time for her and she can’t seem to please her parents.
  • Desiree doesn’t always come home on time and is often with an unknown older male; this is a new behaviour.
  • Desiree can come home under the influences of cannabis; however, she denies being under the influence and doesn’t talk about this openly.

Next, we ask the question, “what might happen?

Again, having multiple ideas is useful. However, for this example we will use one and look at what the short- and longer-term worries might mean for Desiree in the future.

Short-term: Desiree may end up in a situation of sexual harm, as she may be under the influence of cannabis with an unknown male, when she is out late and in a location she doesn’t know.

Long-term: Desiree may become addicted to cannabis, become entrenched in exploitation and leave school.

young person smoking cannabis

Think about the long- and short-term risks of Desiree’s cannabis use.

Being honest about what we’re thinking and feeling is important here, as it creates space for a discussion. All ideas are useful, as you can work through these until you find a focus.

As you do this, it’s useful to remember that emotion often underpins our assessment of risk. But that doesn’t mean it’s helpful when formulating how best to act! It’s important to slow your thinking down and be clear before you act.

Top tips to slow your thinking down

  • Scale the worry. Is it a zero and not likely? Or a 10 and very likely? (You can’t pick five, as that’s fence sitting!)
  • Reflect on your own values around drug use, sticking to curfews and when or if you ever used to meet people after school without your parents’ knowledge. How do these ideas influence how you’re thinking about Desiree’s situation?
  • How does your level of childcare/fostering experience influence how you’re thinking about Desiree and what you would do next?
  • What expectations do you have for different genders? If Desiree were male, how would your ideas about risk be similar or different?

What support do foster carer’s get?

Assessing the likelihood of outcomes

Next, we ask the next question, “how likely are those outcomes?

To help you think critically about this question, here are a number of areas we could focus our risk assessment:

  • We might think about when Desiree smokes cannabis. Is it mostly the day or night? Tracking when she uses will help us understand her relationship to using.
  • What type of cannabis does she smoke and how does she smoke it? This will help inform us of the strength of cannabis.
  • When we have seen her under the influence, how does she behave? How does it limit her responses but, also, what does she seem capable of doing when she is away from home?
  • Does she smoke alone or is she with someone she trusts? Again, we’re tracking context of use.
  • How does Desiree think about risk when she is in the community? What “street smarts” does she have and how does she read people? What stories have you heard from her?
  • What’s her relationship to both children and adults like? Is she more of a leader or follower? And with whom does she show these different sides?
  • What’s her relationship to help, including the police? Whom would she call if she felt she was in danger?
  • Is Desiree a risk-taker and, if so, how would you describe the types of risk she might take?
  • Has Desiree had boyfriends or many male friends? How does she talk about boys and men?

READ MORE: How taking risks can improve foster care relationships

Risk assessment and consequence in fostering

Next we ask, “how severe are the consequences?”

In this next stage we talk openly about how we’re feeling, even if this doesn’t feel like the reality. In moments of worry, we can easily catastrophise and think the worst. It’s great to name this, as we can all do this in certain moments, depending on how we feel about the thing we’re worried about.

foster kids skateboarding in London

It’s all too easy to catastrophise and think the worst when assessing risk in foster care.

Let’s assess the potential severity of the consequences of Desiree’s risks.

Short-term: Desiree could be physically or sexually harmed with this unknown male. Desiree may end up in a situation she is unable to get out of if she is heavily under the influence of cannabis to the point where she is not able to ask for help. She could be severely injured or even killed.

Long-term: Desiree is groomed to sell drugs and is exploited to pay off any debts. Desiree may become addicted to cannabis, leave school and foster care, and be involved in relationships in the future which are unsafe and unloving.

Again, in thinking about consequences, it’s time to slow your thinking down again.

Slow your thinking down, again

  • Let’s scale these worries again, from zero (not likely) to 10 (very likely).
  • Reflect on how your own history and experience is guiding you in your thinking when measuring these consequences.
  • If you’re sitting with uncertainty, how would you describe this feeling?
  • How much certainty do you have in your estimation of what you think might happen?
  • What stories do you have about exploitation and harm and where do these come from?

Judging risk in foster care

Finally, we ask ourselves to make an overall judgement of the risk, based on a combination of the likelihood and severity of the potential outcomes.

In the discussion of Desiree’s situation, we may feel that there is not any significant and immediate harm.

We might know that Desire is street smart: she can read people’s intention’s well and we’ve heard stories from her about dangerous situations she has been in but managed well. We might know that despite being under the influence of cannabis she can hold a conversation; she can still use her phone and is quite sharp. She has a number of friends she considers close “sisters” whom she has reached out to in the past if she has been in trouble.

foster children texting

Whom would Desiree reach out to if she was in trouble?

We might know that she doesn’t like the police, but she has called them once in the past when she needed them. Also, on reflection, we might have noticed that our thinking has continually drawn us to the conclusion that this unknown male is harmful, despite having no evidence for this. We’ve reflected on our own relationship to males and how this influences our thinking for Desiree.

READ MORE: What is an interventive approach to foster care

So, what do we do about Desiree?

We might say that, overall, the likelihood of harm is low, and the potential severity of any consequences is low. Perhaps we might decide that a curfew being met will create enough safety in the short term.

The risks to Desiree are more centred around the longer-term impacts of cannabis use and how this may impair her ability to make judgements of people and situations, and her motivation for school and her self-esteem.

With this in mind, taking a punitive approach may not be a good fit for the situation. Telling Desiree to stop smoking and to not see this male may not achieve what you want it to. Talking with her about her relationship to cannabis and what it does for her and taking a harm minimisation approach may have more of a chance of success.

Also, Desiree’s ideas of males may be quite normative and speaking about this is embarrassing for her. Planning how to talk with her about safe relationships, consent and how she feels in these relationships opens up a conversation that is an opportunity for you to understand her. If you don’t shut the conversation down by restricting freedoms, she may be more likely to talk with you about worries she has in the future.

In London and want to know more about Lika Family Fostering?

Being a foster carer is a role like no other. Successful foster care requires an excellent support network and team around the placement.

Lika is an innovative agency that uses systemic family therapy approaches as a model to guide everything we do.

If you’re interested to know more, give our team a call on 0208 667 2111 or email 

Lika recruits foster carers in the London boroughs of Croydon, Sutton, Bromley, Merton, Lambeth, Westminster, Wandsworth, Lewisham, Southwark, Islington, Camden, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Ilford, City of London, Haringey, Newham, Redbridge, Barking and Dagenham, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Kensington and Chelsea.

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