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Making Sense of Risk: Social Work at the Boundary between Care and Control

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Ravit Alfandari, Brian Taylor, Mary Baginsky, Jim Campbell, Duncan Helm, Campbell Killick, Paul Mccafferty, Judith Mullineux, Jane Shears, Alessandro Sicora , Andrew Whittaker

Original languageEnglish
JournalHealth, Risk and Society
Published23 Nov 2022

King's Authors


‘Risk’ has become a central concept for social work practice in countries with more developed social welfare systems. As argued by Hazel Kemshall and colleagues, ‘risk’ has often replaced ‘need’ as the main driver for social work interventions as societies seek to avoid harm to citizens. This shift of focus raises a tension between care (support for the individual or family in their own right) and control (seeking to prevent harm to themselves, each other or other citizens). This article considers some of the key developments in the 25 years since the above article, including the development of risk communication; the growing familiarity with both likelihood and severity concepts of risk; the assessment of risk as part of organisational arrangements to manage risk; and theoretical developments linking social work assessment, ‘working with risk’ and decision-making. In the first part of the article, we explore the care versus control boundary through focusing, in turn, on child and family social work, adult care services, mental health social work and criminal justice social work, and their respective developments. We then further extend two key foci regarding assessment and care planning as well as the use of professional knowledge at the care and control boundary. Our analysis of these developments points towards more nuanced approaches to managing risk and making decisions at these sometimes contentious boundaries.

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