Tough call can outweigh rule of optimism

16th January 2009 at 00:00

With the current review of child protection in Scotland following the tragic circumstances of Baby P in Haringey, I thought it timely to reflect on my experience.

It has been my great privilege to work with colleagues in children's social work in East Lothian who have patiently educated me about the role, responsibilities and challenges they face on a daily basis.

Teachers sometimes have an ill-informed view of social workers as politically correct, naive do-gooders who are scared to make tough decisions. However, the reality of social work, as I've discovered, is radically different from that perception.

Social workers could make their jobs easier either by immediately removing a child from home where there is any allegation of abuse or neglect, or by trusting parents and carers to do their best and never remove a child from home. Unfortunately, life is never that simple, and it's into this messy world that social workers live their professional lives.

A key feature of a social worker's practice is an awareness of the "rule of optimism", which was first used to explain how health and social workers were screening or filtering out many of the cases with which they were involved. This was done by applying overly positive interpretations to the cases they were assessing.

I'm new to the concept of the "rule of optimism" although, when translating the same rule to my life as teacher, I can see the luxury afforded to teachers in comparison to the sometimes life-or-death decisions faced by social workers.

There would appear to be four reasons for the application of the "rule of optimism". The first is referred to as "cultural relativism", whereby behaviour, which would normally be defined as deviant, is excused due to the belief that members of one culture have no right to criticise other cultures by applying the standards of their own.

The second relates to a general assumption in society that parents love their children. In such circumstances, a social worker requires almost incontrovertible proof that abuse has taken place - which in many cases is not possible.

The third is the negative consequences for families if identification of neglect or abuse turns out to be mistaken.

The fourth, and perhaps most compelling reason, is that children's lives tend to end up better if they stay in their natural home - even if that home is very dysfunctional.

As I stated earlier, my natural tendency as a teacher was always to adopt a "rule of optimism" and I would still say this is probably the case for many of my colleagues in schools. Yet, what I find so admirable about colleagues in children's social work is that they are prepared to make the "tough" call and to be conscious of the dangers of over-optimism.

In my roles as acting director of education and children's services and as chair of the child protection committee, I have a duty to support colleagues who have to make such calls in their daily duties. The sophisticated balance of judgment between the needs of the family and needs of the child make it one of the toughest jobs imaginable. Whatever else we do as managers of social workers, we must ensure that no child who is suffering neglect and abuse in the family home is "neglected" by us through our desire always to see the best.

Don Ledingham is acting director of education and children's services in East Lothian.

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