Whatever your setting, statutory social work to private practice, mental health nurse or executive coach, if you are not attending to safety you are not doing a good enough job. There is often a muddle between doing ‘therapy/coaching’ and doing your ‘job’ and nowhere is this muddle more confusing than when assessing the safety of (and risk to) children in families where relationships have gone awry. But the muddle is also to be found in adult mental health, the care of vulnerable people and in domestic violence – all areas where for many different reasons clients or those around them are at risk of harm. Why the muddle? Because it is a really confusing and muddlesome business!
There is a basic rule with this – don’t mix up therapy and assessment. When there is risk then assessment comes first – we must do our best to safeguard those at risk of harm and so we must make a judgement about that risk. The obvious Solution Focused way of approaching such assessments is to note the evidence of risk and then pay equal attention to the off-setting indications of safety. It is in this context of children’s safeguarding that Harvey, Evan and I met and began our Solution Focused collaboration. ‘Signs of safety’ (alongside ‘signs of danger’) were what we looked for and documented in our frequent court reports. At this time we also met Andrew Turnell, an SF colleague from Perth in Australia, who went on to develop the widely influential ‘Signs of Safety’ approach to safeguarding.
In much private practice, including coaching and organisational work, safeguarding does not arise as a conscious issue. This does not mean that we are not aware. If you find yourself supervising a coach or private practitioner, the issues they bring will often be in relation to risk: bullying within a team, possible domestic violence, self -harm are all matters that we note and concern us even if watching out for them is not a formal part of our job. In all the other cases it is not so much the absence of risk factors that inform us but rather the presence of safety factors. We might not be overtly aware of these ‘signs of safety’ but they are what put our minds at rest.
Over the years BRIEF has worked with many clients who have contemplated and even tried suicide. The fact that they have come is itself one sign of safety, the willingness to make things better, but the biggest signs of safety are the ability to see the possibility of a better future (“It’s like I’m in a tunnel and though I can’t see any light ahead I know that somewhere it will appear”) and the wish not to distress family and friends (“My mother killed herself and I would never do to my children what my mother did to me!"). These signs of hope, perseverance and resilience are the foundations on which we help clients construct better futures but when they are not there we will attend more directly to the issue of safety. The obvious way is to use scales. These might be very direct such as 10 representing “the day after the miracle” and 0 representing the decision to end it all, where would you see yourself at the moment? What is keeping you off the bottom? How do you manage to keep going when life is so tough? Etc. In the end we have to make a judgement about whether or not to inform those with the authority to intervene that we deem a person to be so unsafe that a statutory intervention is necessary.
21 February, 2019