What is risk and what does it mean in foster care?

 In Systemic Fostering

risk in foster care

What is risk and what does it mean in foster care?

When we talk about risk in foster care, we’re not talking about something that is happening right now. We’re predicting any potentially harmful behaviour which may happen in the future.

So, when we complete a risk assessment we’re essentially asking “what might happen?” As you can imagine, this is a part of a foster carer’s role, but it’s also an important task for everyone in the network around the child.

This blog is the first in a series that looks at how to understand and assess risk in a fostering environment. We will look at a number of models that promote finding the balance between when to act/intervene and when to let something happen — even when we don’t necessarily feel comfortable with it.

Let’s take a deep dive into risk, including how it’s managed in a foster care situation.

We all face risks

We all assess risk in our everyday lives. We contemplate whether or not to eat the expired cheese in the fridge, whether we should run across the road when there is heavy traffic and whether to end a relationship that no longer feels right.

We make these decisions every day based on what we think is the right thing to do or what that feeling tells us.

In the assessment of risk in fostering we’re consciously trying to understand what our heads and hearts may be saying and whether we need to listen to them.

risk management

Behaviour we see as risky might not be seen as risky by a young person in foster care.

Here’s how Barry Mason, a therapist and risk assessment specialist, explains it.

“If we can become less certain, we are more likely to become receptive to other possibilities, other meanings we might put to events.”

In other words, we need to set aside our own absolutes (our strongly held opinions, if you will) about what is “right” and “wrong”. We need to reset our approach to risk in the fostering context, and understand that our young people may experience the same world in vastly different ways to us.

Resetting our approach to risk

That’s not to say we forfeit boundaries or allow harm to happen. It just means we need to weigh up what risk means for our complex young person, and consider our boundaries carefully — because introducing too much change too quickly could have the opposite effect to the one we’re trying to mitigate against.

For example, if a young person has never had a bedtime routine, insisting they be in bed by 8 p.m. might seem punitive. Or if they come from a family where smoking cannabis is common, forbidding a teenager from smoking cannabis — and having severe consequences for doing so — might seem deeply unfair.

Risk tolerance

We are all full of contradictions and biases. We seldom follow our own advice but we freely give it to others. This is exactly why it’s important for foster carers to understand:

  • Common themes in how we understand risk
  • Their own relationship with risk-taking
  • How we act with our young people during times of worry.

If we don’t understand how we act in moments that feel risky, we can end up placing our own worries or needs at the forefront of our foster care decision-making and miss alternative, safer approaches to risk with the young people in our care.

risk tolerance

Understanding when we are being risk averse is an important skill for a foster carer.

Understanding when we are being risk averse and then being able to reset our approach and become risk tolerant is part of becoming a skilled risk assessor — and it’s an important skill in foster care.

Risk-taking in young people

Risk-taking is a normal part of life. It helps us to learn and develop. Taking moderate risks is part of growing older. Often, we first learn what is acceptable from our primary carers – often our parents.

When we take our first steps without holding onto something, ride a bike without training wheels or go for our first sleepover at a friend’s house, our primary carers are teaching us about acceptable levels of risk. If we prove our skill and trustworthiness, we might eventually get to the point of walking to school alone or being given a front door key.

But we know that some young people in foster care have had experiences that mean their perception of risk and risk-taking can feel at odds with our own expectations or normative assumptions. Our own ideas of many situations may not align with how our looked after young people see the world. For example:

  • Drinking alcohol
  • Taking drugs
  • Staying out late
  • Being sexually active from a young age
  • Making friendships quickly with harmful people.

In 2020, the Department for Education’s statistics found that 65 per cent of the children in care were being looked after due to concerns about “abuse or neglect”.

risk taking in young people

There are many reasons a young person who has experienced trauma may engage in behaviour we see as risky.

The impact of this will influence how these young people understand, and act in, risky situations. As clinical specialist Dan Hughes puts it, the “inner world” (mental processing) of a young person who has experienced trauma often isn’t given the attention it needs if that young person is to develop healthier patterns. That’s where you, as a foster carer, can make a real difference.

What influences risky behaviours

Let’s look at some of the kinds of things that influence a young person in foster care engaging in risky behaviours:

  • Poor impulse control
  • A lack of trust in adults and an unsafe support network (poor role models)
  • Trauma (and its impact on brain development and consequential thinking)
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Survival skills (a tried and tested strategy that has kept them safe in the past)
  • Low self-esteem
  • Interoception – understanding the signals when your body is hot, cold, hungry, full, thirsty. If a young person can’t read these signals, it can make self-regulation difficult. Interoception can be common for young people who have experienced trauma.
  • A lack of stability
  • Internal working model – which is described as the way that someone perceives themselves based on their relationship with early caregivers.

Risk and the foster carer

In fostering, statutory guidelines inform how foster care providers (like LiKa), foster carers (you) and professionals linked to the young person (like social workers) need to respond to risk. We call this safeguarding.

Some of these approaches involve developing safer care plans, writing daily logs,  creating risk assessments, attending safeguarding training, and comprehensive placement matching, as well as implementing house agreements and family contracts.

We use these tools to mitigate risk, but we can never eliminate it. Foster carers and the network of people around them need to sit with uncertainty as part of their role – it’s unavoidable. We are then left with this question: how much uncertainty can I handle?

risk and the foster carer

Children who come into foster care have learnt a lot about the world by the time we’ve met them.

If foster carers and the people who support them are not conscious about how they’re assessing risk and are instead led by emotion, this can lead to punitive responses to risky situations, informed by bias or risk aversion and which may not take into account the learned survival skills of that individual child.

Children who come into care have learnt a lot about the world by the time we’ve met them, so it’s our responsibility to slow our thinking down to understand them.

READ MORE: Foster carers: Understanding the teenage brain

Tips for assessing and responding to risk

1. Listen to your body and how it’s reacting when you hear something that feels risky. What is it doing? Perhaps it’s the hair on your neck standing on end or your heart skipping a beat. Often our body will react before we can consciously process what we’re thinking and feeling.

2. When you’re in a conversation with a young person and it sounds like you need to    manage a risky situation – listen to what your head and heart are telling you. Your heart may say “it’s fine; go on” but your head says “no way this can happen”. Start noticing which one you listen to more. (This is a great conversation to bring to supervision!

3. Notice themes that you think feel riskier than other. You may feel that a young person disclosing they’re using cannabis feels OK as they’re talking openly to you about it, whereas asking to stay overnight at a new friend’s house might ring alarm bells.

4. Listen to what friends, family, media say you should do, versus what you think the best course of action is when you’re attempting to mitigate a risky situation with a young person. There may be a disconnect between what fits versus what others tell you. Understanding this opens up a space to talk with your Supervising Social Worker about what influences your assessment of risk.

assessing risk

5. Ask yourself, “am I more or less worried about this risk because my young person is looked after? If this was my birth or someone else’s child, would I have a similar or different feeling when thinking about this risk?” Sometimes we can be risk averse when the expectations placed on us are different.

6. Start scaling risk, with 10 being really worrying and zero being not a problem. Also, ask yourself the question, “how bad are the consequences if this worry comes true?” We can catastrophise, so thinking in a structured way can help understand our assessment of risk.

7. Slow your thinking down. If you need time to think before you act, do it. Sometimes taking a moment even if your young person is impatient means we can be more present in understanding how best to act.

8. Ask yourself, “what is the biggest influence guiding my thinking right now when I’m presented with a risk?” Reflecting on what impacts your thinking during moments of worry can only be helpful – sharpening our risk assessment tool (ourselves) takes practice, time and bravery.

9. We have a lifetime of influences that impact how we act in critical moments. Ask yourself, “what is my family’s narrative about risk-taking?” Is it similar or different to how you see it now and how does this impact your decision-making in this moment? Some big questions, but helpful to grapple with.

10. When in doubt, always call your Supervising Social Worker, after hours support, the child’s social worker or whatever fostering supports are available to you. You should never be alone if you’re not sure how best to respond.

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 enquiries@likafamilyfostering.co.uk 

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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