International Child Welfare Expert Nicki Weld at the 2016 NCCD Conference

June 1, 2016 | Phil Decter, Associate Director


A number of years ago, my mother needed to have surgery. Her condition was not life-threatening; however, it was serious, and I wanted to make sure both she and I were clear about the risks and benefits of the proposed surgery. I remember accompanying her to the doctor, nervous and hopeful. The doctor was terrific in walking us through the procedure, telling us what would happen and what the benefits would be. I remember asking, with some trepidation, “What are the risks?” Without batting an eye, the doctor looked at me and said, “It’s a complicated part of the body—I could cut something I shouldn’t.” 

My first thought upon hearing this was: Gulp! Maybe we should find another surgeon! If she is worried she could cut something she shouldn’t, perhaps we should find someone more confident and careful. Wouldn’t that be better? But within a few seconds, I realized my heart rate was dropping, and I slowly began to feel a little better. This doctor knew the damage she could inadvertently cause while trying to be helpful. On reflection, this was exactly the kind of surgeon I wanted for my mom. 

On Tuesday, October 4, Nicki Weld—internationally known social work author, educator, and co-creator of the Three Houses—will be presenting a day-long pre-conference session, called Professional Dangerousness in Child Welfare, at the NCCD Conference on Children, Youth, and Families (as well as a conference workshop on the Three Houses). In much the same way as my mother’s surgeon demonstrated, the theory and practice of professional dangerousness involves professionals becoming aware of the ways they may inadvertently contribute to more dangerousness in a situation where they are trying to be helpful. Some characteristics of professional dangerousness in child protection practice include: 

  • Avoiding asking the hard questions 

  • Over-reliance on optimism 

  • Minimizing the problems children, youth, and families are facing 

  • Being “frozen” by our own anxiety 

  • Working in silos, or in isolation, and not checking our conclusions and formulations  

  • Denial and rationalization of the impact on vulnerable children that may be occurring 

  • A lack of rigor in our assessments and interventions 

As Nicki says, “Professional dangerousness is such an important and critical area that every worker should know about it. I first came across the material when I was a pediatric social worker, and reading it both made the hairs on my neck stand up and lights go on as I realized I had done some of the professional dangerousness dynamics described.” 

As a practitioner, trainer, and consultant, I can relate to the experience she describes and have had similar—and scary—realizations about my own practice. Regarding the social work practitioners I regularly coach and train, I know that hopefulness is critical for our engagement with families and for our chances of being a part of the changes we hope to see families make. But hopefulness without balance, optimism without rigor, and engagement without asking hard questions—these all can make us dangerous. When we at the NCCD Children’s Research Center teach assessment to child protection professionals, we often talk about the importance of a “rigorous and balanced assessment.” This kind of assessment is only enhanced by a better awareness of the dynamics of professional dangerousness and the ways in which we can inadvertently cause harm. 

Nicki has gone on to say, “If I could have any professional development compulsory [training] for anyone working with children, it would be professional dangerousness. It is so important we bring this lens to our work.” 

We at NCCD are grateful for the leadership Nicki has provided to all of us around the world who care about children and families. We look forward to learning more from her in October about this important topic, and we hope you can join us!