Working with radicalisation risk – A redistribution of Orwellian pre-crime

This guest blog post is by Dr. Tony Stanley. Tony is the Principal Social Worker (PSW) for Tower Hamlets local authority, in London. Holding a small caseload, he has direct experience of working with radicalisation risk cases. He argues that all PSWs should hold cases so they can authentically report on practice issues affecting the frontline. Tony has been appointed Chief Social Worker for Birmingham City Council and starts his new role in October.

A slippage has occurred – from helping to surveillance, with these families being shoehorned through a narrow child protection process.

The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act (2015) came into force in the UK on July 1, setting out a new duty on local authority social workers to provide support for people vulnerable to being drawn into any form of terrorism and to have ‘due regard’ for Prevent in their policies and procedures. This new duty to provide information about service users to the relevant agencies is reimagining the social work task. We have joined the dominant securitizing response to radicalisation risk, thus shifting the relationship between children, their families, and social workers (Finch and McKendrick, 2015). The Prevent agenda, policy since September 11, and bolstered after the London tube bombings in 2005, promotes an individualized focus by defining the suspected radicalizing risk subject. The family as a source of help, resiliency, support and intervention is relegated. Further, the family is also asked to spot their own potentially ‘at risk’ member and report them. Under the guise of ‘helping’ a file gets created that travels with the young person indefinitely. Helping at one level is creating new risk identities down the line – and risk profiles are not benign. With little debate about what this means for social workers, children, young people and their families, we must avoid sleep walking into offering a one size fits all muscular child protection response to radicalisation risk (Stanley and Guru, 2015). A slippage has occurred – from helping to surveillance, with these families being shoehorned through a narrow child protection process.

This is not a benign move toward improved security through better intelligence practices; rather a social surveillance project with perverse outcomes for social work and the people we work with.

Can social work promote social justice ideals and provide human rights advocacy at a time when practitioners are required to intervene to prevent terrorism? The rights of open debate, free speech, ideological difference and at times disturbing commentary about what some may be wanting, is placing their children directly into the state gaze of surveillance and control. Has the recent child sexual exploitation scandal influenced us here? Leaders do not want to be caught missing the next big child protection risk issue.

At the same time, predictive risk modeling methods are being promoted as the answer to better data analysis thus improving targeted interventions. The seductive argument sold here, and helpfully critiqued by Keddell (2015), is to help cash strapped local authorities to ‘spot the next abused child, or locate tomorrows ‘at risk’ teenager from terrorism.’ We have entered a period of ‘pre-crime’ social work – where information held locally for one purpose (e.g. on child welfare, education and housing data bases, heath systems and police records) is now mashed up via statistical and mathematical calculations (and rebranded as risk assessments), and used to inform claims about actions and events before they happen. In the name of public safety and efficiency savings we are sharing information through the predictive risk modelling machinery with little safeguards for the human rights of people under suspicion. And, if parents identify their young people as being at risk of radicalisation, and ask for help, records are created; labels assigned. This in turn reinforces notions of ‘the individual’ being the sole target for intervention, encouraging a child rescue approach. This weakens collaborative practice with parents and families because they are constructed as ‘non-protective’ sources of risk. We are creating a bigger problem, and it is already a very expensive one. Will families ask for our help?

How can social workers resist the tendency to view risk in these cases in rather fixed, positivist and psychologising terms (thus predetermining a child’s trajectory to be ‘at risk’?) something at odds with the empowerment and social justice aims of social work? With violent extremism, which is so evocative and highly charged, and where the consequences can be deadly, there is a high potential for risk to be over-exaggerated. The media is very influential. The dilemma for statutory social workers is how to intervene and offer help to families in this situation? (Vaughn et al, 2015). Would a voluntary or third sector agency be better placed to help? But they need to be on the governments approved list, and be actively promoting ‘British values’. It is clear that power rests with the security authorities – and social workers have been coopted.

But we can and need to work with this. Risk assessment and social work requires practice tools that are grounded in and facilitate a relational approach to risk. The Signs of Safety is such an approach that is being used in childrens and adult social care ( The Signs of Safety takes a comprehensive approach to analyzing danger, existing strengths and safety/protective factors and future safety and utilizes a simple judgment scaling process to involve all participants. The framework can be used with individuals, groups or whole communities and this methodology potentially offers a powerful tool for social workers to use in this area of radicalization or violent extremism. Working proactively with risk in these cases, that is talking about risk in its many variances and possibilities opens up a more collaborative working relationship where talking about what people might want to do is the focus. This is a humane approach to working with cases of radicalisation risk. The family group conference (FGC) offers another restorative intervention approach for working with radicalisation risk. This is a family focused restorative model where the resources within and around the family are drawn on to harness safety and strengths to help children and families. The FGC provides a facilitated space for families to locate solutions and options to help keep their young people and children to be safer. We need to trust families and invite them to be partners in the work. High quality supervision is essential for social workers to be supported and challenged – to become more confident in decision-making and empowered to challenge policies that adversely affect the partnership principle.

Presently, too many jurisdictions in England are shoehorning families through a muscular child protection system with little alternative. And worryingly, predictive risk modelling has joined forces with the current child protection system without challenge. This combination is likely to adversely affect Muslim families. We need to speak back to this worrying Orwellian ‘pre-crime’ policy and practice development if we are to offer humane help and real support. Families deserve nothing less.


Finch, J., and McKendrick, D. (2015) The non-linear war on social work in the UK: Extremism, radicalisation, troubled families and the recasting of “safeguarding” (accessed 3 Aug, 2015)

Keddell, E., (2015) Predictive risk modelling on rights data and politics (accessed 3 August)

Stanley, T. and Guru, S., (2015) Childhood radicalisation risk: an emerging practice issue. Practice: Social work in action

Vaughn, L. Godfrey, B. Waring, S. & Mair, M. (2015) Practitioner perspectives: Safeguarding children and young people from radicalisation University of Liverpool

6 replies on “Working with radicalisation risk – A redistribution of Orwellian pre-crime”

An excellent comment on the ‘riskiness’ of an extreme risk approach to practice, especially in the context of anti-terrorism law in the UK. We have our own focus on a risk emphasis by government in Aotearoa that social work can easily become captured by. I agree with Stanley that this more hostile environment for service users and social workers should have us refocus on a human rights approach in practice, with a relational emphasis that also aligns with a Treaty and bicultural commitment. Interesting the use of the term ‘helping’ here, from my experience working in the mental health field the term ‘support’ was preferred as a way to affirm self determination for service users and to enable more collaborative working relationships.

Thanks David,

I use the word helping a lot in my work context because the English child welfare system can be so authoritarian, and in my practice I want to help families.
‘Support’ is a really overused term in England, and I worry it has been co-opted to say social workers are right in defining support and families; views on what helpful is easily relegated.
To be helpful means not being unhelpful,

Thank you Tony for your contribution and just to say I have used your work on more than one occasion to background my research on FGC. Having been a part of FGC development in the UK as a restorative intervention tool, particularly for vulnerable adults, I got to see how well it worked in terms of partnership and being positively resourced.
However, that is not the case in Aotearoa where the FGC often does not, as you state “provide a facilitated space for families to locate solutions and options to help keep their young people and children to be safer.” This is a myth that FGC proponants world-wide like to herald repeatedly about the NZ FGC. The FGC in Aotearoa, as whanau Maori report and recent Chief social worker commissioned research confirms, the FGC here at home is too often a state centered rather than family centered forum. One of the ‘many’ examples of this is where outcomes are often predetermined in favour of the social workers aspirations and this results in the process facilitating the separation of particularly Māori children from their cultural roots. The stats on FGC confirm this and so does the stats on FGCs held in other colonial settler jurisdictions such as in the USA, UK and Australia.

Kia Ora Paora,
Yes I agree, I looked at FGC practises in my PhD 10 years ago and many sw were railroading their views through it. And using the language of risk rather uncritically to help them to do so.
But the promise of restorative practice is growing in England – Leeds is a place where restorative practice is promoted and showing some sound gains for families and workers.
The English system is very professionally dominated one, and I am keen that we position the principles of FGC into our everyday practice. I ran an FGC one evening with a family where a young lad was physically abused. Great result with a family safety plan that drove change and built safety. But I was told by snr colleagues not to use the term ‘FGC’ in such work because in England FGC is ‘a brand’ and delivered by external facilitators.
How did we get here?
Watch out for Leeds,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.