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Experts Corner: Stephen Gray

Stephen Gray 2

Why establishing facts based on valid, reliable data and avoiding making uninformed assumptions is key when carrying out risk assessments with young people. The extent to which children abuse others is a serious issue, evidenced by crime statistics and those whose intervention bypasses the criminal courts and remain within the Child in Need process.

Child abuse has been high on the radar not only within the social work field but across politics, sport, the media and more over the last few years. As a result, social workers have been inundated with complex cases of sexual abuse ranging from intra-familial child abuse, online grooming, revenge porn, Child Sexual Exploitation, child trafficking, child on child sex offences and children presenting risky behaviour.

In response to an outcry from authorities and social workers for help tackling this complex area of practice, a brand new service aimed at supporting frontline practitioners to tackle complex cases of child sexual abuse is being launched by independent social work provider WillisPalmer.

An enhanced service of WillisPalmer - WP-Risk - will become a national specialist resource offering a comprehensive range of multi-disciplinary expert services to assist in the identification, assessment, management and prevention of risk in identified or suspected cases of sexual abuse.

“We aim to provide advice and therapeutic support for individuals and families affected by the impact of sexual abuse, assisting in helping the recovery and where possible the restorative process,” said Mark Willis, director of WillisPalmer. “We are driven by an ethical commitment to promote the welfare of victims by improving safeguarding, protection and therapeutic practices. WP-Risk believes that advancement and dissemination of specialist knowledge and promotion of advanced skills are central to this service improvement process.”

WP-Risk will work alongside social work and other public protection agencies engaged in frontline practice and management.

WP-Risk offers:

  • Case consultation
  • Specialist risk assessments
  • Risk reduction intervention
  • Therapeutic work with young people residing in family, residential and educational settings
  • Risk management collaboration
  • Assisting organisations in strengthening safeguarding approaches and specialist team skills
  • Training and staff development

WP-Risk will be managed by  Stephen  Gray who has extensive experience in the public and private sector in the areas of forensic risk,  in respect of both assessment and intervention.

‘My expectations are based on excellence, never mediocrity’

Having qualified with a CQSW qualification in social work and a post-graduate diploma in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Gray worked in various residential care and community-based roles for Action for Children – previously NCH. He applied his training in CBT to complex behaviours, believing that understanding the aetiology of the specific behaviour is core to successful formulation, management and intervention outcomes. Gray is also a post-graduate in Forensic Behavioural Science, an applied clinical qualification aimed at intervention with mental disorder and criminal behaviour.

Gray was a manager/therapist in a Regional Adolescent Secure Unit in Cheshire for four years. This gave him an opportunity to develop a solution-focussed approach to frequently demanding scenarios. Following this he did a stint lecturing in psychology and social policy, before he went on to create a national specialist therapeutic resource with the Bryn Melyn Group. In 2006 Gray used his expertise to establish his own therapeutic residential care and education setting for young people with complex needs and at times high risk profiles.

“Having gained sufficient knowledge and experience, I wanted to do things differently for myself with the scope and theoretical/operational autonomy to do it my way,” he explains.

Gray had undertaken further post-graduate training in Management Science and Organisational Psychology.  He became particularly interested in how people function in organisations and how cultures can be developed to shape pro-social behavioural norms. When Gray came to set up his residential and educational settings, he applied a set of theories and approaches to develop a tight therapeutic environment.

'Everyone in the organisation had shares so they had a sense of ownership'

“I recruited a core group of six or seven colleagues, many of whom knew me and had worked with me previously. All knew my exacting expectations and personal/professional standards and we developed a mandate of aspirational objectives. The team were a talented, resilient group of managers, teachers, psychologists and childcare professionals. My role as a CEO demanded that I was ‘hands on’ engaging in residential, clinical duties and crises management to mentor my standards for others to emulate. In addition to leading the growth and development of the service,  Gray continued his clinical caseload to keep him grounded in his child-focussed beliefs.

As the service developed into a national resource in two regional bases it became widely recognised for its unique therapeutic outcomes and child-focussed approach and Gray was able “to articulate its methodology and operational standards into a working model”.

From the outset everyone in the organisation had shares so they had a sense of ownership. This served to reinforce Gray’s accountability to all his colleagues for their wellbeing and security. It also ensured that he and they maintained the same benchmarks of child-focussed standards which he had held since embarking on his career with disadvantaged young people.

Gray also believes in engendering a team approach. “Having played rugby most of my life I have learned a lot about interdependency, leadership and working for others.” This approach appeared to work: staff retention rates were 94% after seven years with Gray at the helm. At that point, the organisation had grown from 6-7 staff to over 100 and Gray still knew each member of staff, each young person that they supported and their aspirations. As it was on the cusp of becoming a corporate model, Gray decided to relinquish his position, take some time off and concentrate on his consultancy work where he was commissioned by numerous local authorities across the country to undertake structured forensic risk assessments and risk reduction interventions with adolescents and adults who are viewed as displaying risks of sexual abuse or physical violence. Gray’s interest in risk, challenging behaviour and public protection has harnessed his motivation to support and engage in therapy with victims of serious crime and to reduce victim impact through developing protective strategies.

“My expectations are always based on excellence, never mediocrity – I am a stickler for standards. I wanted staff to be proud of our achievements. I believe young people are motivated to emulate positive role models, hence having a professional team who elicit high personal values and standards of conduct have a greater chance of earning trust and credibility from young people, particularly those who have had a long history of relationship and attachment difficulties. It is not surprising that young people are sometimes resistant to engage due to developing an expectation of failure or rejection. I strongly believe in instilling an internal locus of control by which once can control one’s destiny – ‘there is no such thing as can’t!’”

The easiest way to manage risk is to not take any

Having a community-based service for young people who present risks and challenging behaviours is remarkably rewarding yet poses many occupational challenges. “I do not subscribe to this risk-averse approach as social isolation and exclusion maintains risk in the long run. Unless there is a mandate to control or deprive liberty, children have a right to participate in their communities subject to respectful safeguarding measures. The best way to test out the effectiveness of therapy is to apply what has been learnt and put into practice the relapse prevention skills, it might be scary but it is necessary,” said Gray.

You need to develop a fine line between being risk averse or over-identifying with an over optimistic view on the situation. I am keen to avoid labelling or using global descriptions for behaviours as particularly young people should not be viewed as having homogenous characteristics – they are unique.  The skill in risk management is often about keeping your fingers crossed, being aware, testing, more testing, revisiting evidenced-based risk tools. You have to be constantly aware that risk is a dynamic phenomena; someone may be stable in one situation and may alter their risk status in the next. This is why collaboration and effective communication is so important.

Making risk-related decisions often require a collaborative approach that shares defensible opinions. As a precondition for engagement in a case there is an expectation of inter-agency cooperation as it can be professionally dangerous to do otherwise.

Gray’s social work background has influenced his moral expectation of people and social conscience, which has under-pinned everything he has done. A majority of the cases that he is commissioned to undertake have multi-systemic complexities. His approach aims to be evidence-based, respectful, pragmatic and open. He often approaches issues that others might shy away from, often with people who are portrayed as being ‘un-engagable’ – his thoughts being that if everything is out in the open that is as bad as things can get. Avoidance is not helpful, he adds.

“My priority has always been to establish clear functional perspective of presenting issues for the client and their situation, formulating an opinion on presenting issues and reliable data. I believe honesty and professionalism honesty earns credibility. This is something I will continue at WP-Risk”.

WP-Risk is being launched this month.

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