The term children-at-risk has been used by Christian organizations for almost twenty years.ii While it has a “strong intuitive meaning,”iii to date it has no agreed-upon definition. Nevertheless, the below definition and the following discussion should provide a sufficient starting-point for those who are new to this conversation, and we invite others to join us in our struggle.
Children-at-risk are persons under 18 who experience an intense and/or chronic risk factor, or a combination of risk factors in personal, environmental and/or relational domains that prevent them from pursuing and fulfilling their God-given potential.vi
While it is possible to argue that virtually every child falls within this definition,v such thinking loses sight of the term’s purpose. As with all definitions, some cases clearly fit better than others. So, a four-year-old with severe malnutrition fits better than the seventeen-year-old student who struggles with a pornography addiction. Both are in danger of not fulfilling their potential, but the need is arguably greater for the former than the latter, and this is a key purpose of the term: to highlight and prioritize those situations where children are experiencing great unmet needs and where outside engagement is most urgent. In fact, the potential to consider diverse unmet needs everywhere (both the poor and the non-poor, the non-west and the west) across all aspects of human experience (spiritual, physical, emotional, environmental, and social) is one of its great strengths.
Another key distinction between all children and children-at-risk is to say that all children are inherently vulnerable by virtue of their developmental capacities (and associated social influence relative to adults), but not all children are at risk. So while a healthy infant is vulnerable, if people surround that infant who meet the needs their vulnerability creates, the infant is not at risk.
The most prototypical examples of children-at-risk focus on certain factors that groups of children can be observed to face, such as homelessness (i.e. street children or runaways), the worst forms of child labor, or sexual exploitation. Yet, while these types of “categories of need” can be helpful to raise awareness and motivate action according to news cycles (especially in the west), they tend to promote particular generic narratives that bear little relationship to the complexity of real children’s lives. Instead, the overlapping and messy social challenges that children who are most at risk face defy easy categorization and require skilled and well-researched interventions in order to pursue the kind of outcomes that are in a child’s best interests.
Children-at-risk also explicitly includes the unborn. While we have no desire to engage in divisive political rhetoric, we join with many international agencies—both secular and Christian—in identifying the importance of maternal health care in the wellbeing of children, and know that many children face great risks before they ever take their first breath.
As Christians, we are particularly concerned about the spiritual dimensions of risk; however, these are often more difficult to identify than the kinds of indicators in other domains. Nevertheless, a child is a holistic being, so we recognize that a broken spirit, weakened faith—or most importantly the lack of access to the gospel—can be a significant factor in a child not reaching God-given potential, and must be addressed in concert with all other dimensions of care for children-at-risk. However, the belief that all children-at-risk are also unreached is erroneous and unhelpful, and typically the recognition that a given child has not received and embraced the message of salvation is insufficient to categorize them as being at risk.
Undeniably, the most consistent risk factor that indicates a child as being at risk is the presence of poverty, especially in its most extreme forms. Furthermore, children living in extreme poverty (i.e. living on less than $1-2 per day) are far more likely to experience other complex risk factors. However, simple measures of relative or absolute economic poverty are not always a reliable indicator of whether a child is at risk. For example, it is possible for a child who is experiencing economic poverty to show stronger signs of a hopeful future than a different child who enjoys relative wealth but who suffers from other kinds of personal, environmental, and relational risk factors.
This is made more understandable in light of contemporary conceptions of resilience. While the term “children-at-risk” highlights the liability of risk factors in a child’s life, young people also have access to personal, environmental, and relational resilience factors that can ameliorate or erase the most destructive aspects of some risks. So, while economic assistance can help to enhance some of these factors, others are more dependent on functional social networks and family connections that can endure even despite financial hardship. In any case, identifying and fostering resilience is often a first, best step in helping any young person who is at risk.vi
Good practice in work with children-at-risk also commonly emphasizes the value of child participation, so that children can see themselves as primary agents of change in their own lives rather than as defenseless objects of charity.vii Current scholarship also continues to explore and document the missiological possibilities of seeing children (and children-at-risk) as not just recipients of mission, but as partners as well.viii
Finally, while the term “children-at-risk” seems to connote an individualistic focus, effective practitioners know that every child is embedded in a series of nested systems of family, community, nation-state, and history (among others) all of which must be given attention regarding both risk and resilience factors in order to achieve long term outcomes that are in the best interestsix of not just the child but the missio Dei. Indeed, often the most needed interventions are those that address the structural (political and social) that inhibit a child’s healthy development through public-awareness campaigns and other political initiatives, and which smaller-scale solutions cannot begin to address.
Understanding children-at-risk is especially important for the global church in the 21st century because while the history of Christian mission has always been marked by concern for children, too often church-based efforts have prioritized children who exist in families, or overemphasize certain solutions (such as orphanages) that have not always been in children’s best interests. Other churches have failed to fully appreciate the responsibility they must bear for the state of children within their own communities and beyond. Instead, we invite churches everywhere to promote and expand the effective missional work with children that they are currently doing, and strive to develop innovative, integrative, systemic and collaborative approaches that will realize the Kingdom of Heaven more fully for children, their families, and their communities.
i This definition was drafted by Dave H. Scott in consultation with the Planning Team for the Lausanne Consultation on Children at Risk that took place in Quito, Ecuador in November 2014. Since that time a clarifying paragraph regarding vulnerability was inserted based on feedback received at the conference.
ii Patrick McDonald was one of the first people to promote the term “children at risk” as a way to unify many different Christian groups working with children facing different kinds of need under a single term. The value of the term has been debated over the years since, but it has continued to hold meaning for many despite its weaknesses, some of which are discussed in this paper.
v This is particularly because the notion of a child’s “God-given potential” is conceivably both limitless and unknowable. Nevertheless, it is a helpful and motivational conceptual marker for organizing Christian responses which functions in a similar way to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child’s “best interests of the child” (see note ix below).
vi Rhodes, J., and J. Roffman. “Nonparental Adults as Asset Builders in the Lives of Youth.” In Developmental Assets and Asset-Building Communities: Implications for Research, Policy, and Practice, edited by R. M. Lerner and Peter L. Benson, 195-212. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum, Search Institute, 2003.
vii For a recent example from a Christian development perspective, see Jayakaran, Ravi, and Jennifer Orona. Empowering Children: Principles, Strategies, and Techniques for Mobilizing Child Participation in the Development Process. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2011.
Editor’s Note: To cite this document, please use,
Lausanne Consultation on Children at Risk. ‘Who are Children-at-Risk: A Missional Definition’. Quito, Ecuador: Lausanne Movement, 2015.