Jan 30, 2010

"At Risk" - Definition

I read the following definition in the book "Off the Derech": "kids at risk" usually refers to a population marked not only by abandonment of observance but also by engagement in socially delinquent activities such as vandalism, theft, substance abuse, promiscuity, and running away from home

This definition is absurd because if a kid is doing that, then the kid is NOT AT RISK any longer, but has crossed the line!

If a person is at risk of, let's say, an allergic reaction to certain foods, he will avoid peanuts, dairy products and fish (or whatever triggers the reaction). You wouldn't describe someone allergic to nuts who ate nuts, turned red, blew up, was gasping for air, as AT RISK of an allergic reaction!

Then there's the line, "ALL teenagers are at risk," which some people favor.  Somehow it makes them feel better because it's democratic, it puts us all in the same boat.  However, the phrase is meaningless and useless.

Those who work with kids in trouble can enumerate for you specific risk factors.

Think of risk factors in connection with health - those who are overweight, smoke, never exercise, and have a family history of heart disease, are at great risk of heart disease.  If a person is slim, eats well, exercises, has no family history of heart disease, they are not at risk of heart disease.

Or a person might have SOME factors that put them at a lower or high risk level.

But does it make sense to say that all human beings are at risk of heart disease? It's true that anybody, even someone with no risk factors, can drop dead of a heart attack, but there is no point in talking about "risk" or "risk factors" if we are going to say that everybody is at risk!


  1. The term "at risk" is a politically correct term akin to a term like "special needs". I would guess that an "at risk" teen might do something dangerous enough to cause him to undergo incarceration or death.
    As to all teens being "at risk", that depends on their social circle. A recent article published by a kiruv professional stated that yeshiva educated children who go to a secular university and live on campus have a very strong likelihood that their chinuch will be quickly forgotten as they try to integrate in a co-ed college life. That does not mean that they will do something dangerous but they are "at risk" spiritually.

  2. When a child is said to have "special needs," people know that this euphemism means the child is not normal in some way. It is also a problematic term since it lumps together all those with physical, mental and other handicaps.

    The problem with the "at risk" designation is that it is used indiscriminately, whether the child abandons religious observance and/or engages in delinquent activities, or hasn't yet; those who are likely to do those things and those who are not. It obscures rather than clearly defines.

    In the past, someone who crossed the line and was no longer frum was called "frei" as opposed to frum. If they observed the basics such as kashrus and Shabbos but not much else, they were called "modern."

  3. Usually kids who leave the derech do so because they are angry and hurt at their parents, teachers, and the frum community. If they simply stopped observing, but were otherwise good citizens, they would not be at risk, except from a spiritual perspective. Unfortunately, because they are angry, it is not enough for them to simply join a Reformed temple. They get together with other wayward youngsters and find ways to hurt their parents and shteck out the community even more. One friend observed that years ago, people left the derech to enter the professional world. Now, they leave to become bums, lowlifes and street people. They are looking for shock value.

  4. On a medical website it says: "Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get the disease; not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get the disease."

    Now we can replace the word "disease" with "becoming a drug addict" or "becoming a mechalel Shabbos," and the term "at risk" is used properly.