When child protection professionals are confronted by new information about cases

The Social Care Institute for Excellence asks how professionals, particularly those dealing with child protection cases, can respond  to new and challenging information

Child protection involves dealing with uncertainties and making important, complex decisions on the basis of incomplete information to demanding timelines in changing, often hostile and stressful circumstances. The repercussions of leaving a child in a dangerous home or splitting up a family can be extremely damaging. However, these judgements and decisions have to be made and it is essential that the professionals do so in a considered way, constantly guarding against the tendency to cling to original beliefs, searching only for information that supports them and devaluing or reframing new information that counters them.

Rational assessments

Sound judgements can only be achieved when a professional revisits their initial assumptions in the light of fresh evidence or a fresh view of the existing evidence. Social workers need to employ a reflective, constantly self-critical approach and recognise that the ability to change their mind is imperative. All beliefs must be open to interrogation and free to change.

Dingwall et al (1983) identified three specific types of biases found in child protection work: the rule of optimism; that parents inevitably love their children; and the perception of elastic norms linked to cultural difference. Although these biases are manifest among individual social workers it is important to note that these individuals operate as part of an organisation which can encourage performance in line with biases.

Healthy scepticism

In addition to being willing to challenge their own biases, social workers should, when necessary, demonstrate “healthy scepticism” and respectful uncertainty (Laming 2003) in their dealings with families. This should be matched by an organisational culture which promotes openness, constructive challenge and self-criticism.

Methods of assessment vary with a variety of models but assessment should be ongoing. This requires social workers to develop trusting relationships with children and families so they can more deeply investigate their needs. The two main strategies identified as effective for handling changing circumstances or evidence are:

Playing devil’s advocate: An effective way to correct initial biases or misjudgements despite new evidence is for a social worker to play their own devil’s advocate. With this “dialectic mindset” (Render and Duncan 1999), social workers constantly balance counter arguments and opposing concepts. They should be constantly interrogating their narratives and the thought processes that inform them.

The Department of Health recommends social workers ask themselves:

● Would I react differently if these reports had come from a different source?

● What were my assumptions about this family and what, if any, is the hard evidence supporting them?

Effective supervision: First-line caseworkers need support and training to successfully provide oversight and review.

Effective supervision supports critical thinking and reflection and helps social workers develop and use their reasoning skills. The relationship between supervisor and practitioners should be supportive and challenging: the sessions should encourage the social worker to avoid slipping into uncritical analysis. Supervisors should read case files and maintain an interest in the ongoing case. Supervision should serve four functions:

Managerial: Effective management can ensure competent, accountable performance. A manager will ensure that workers follow procedures and policies with the opportunity to refer to more experienced and authoritative members of the organisation. However, if this aspect of the supervisor takes precedence then the person being supervised can feel like their supervisor is only interested in checking up on them.

Personal development: This function of the supervisory role encourages staff to reflect honestly on their work, assessments and strategies and their interaction with others. It also involves sharing of knowledge and good practice. A supervisor should be knowledgeable and experienced enough to alert staff to research and information and help them to evaluate their own attitudes and practice.

Support: Child protection work is stressful and supervision should include support to assist the social worker manage these stresses and be able to function well. This involves creating an environment in which social workers feel free to express their fears without being interpreted as failing to cope.

Mediation: The supervisor may be responsible for representing staff needs to higher management and negotiating other services or clarifying resource constraints to outside agencies and organisations.

Rhetoric versus reality

Although all parties may recognise the importance of all these functions, in reality many factors affect how much weight they are given. Team managers may emphasise the managerial aspects while front-line workers stress the supportive element.

Lord Laming (2003, 2009) recommended that the work of frontline staff in direct contact with children be regularly supervised. This support should be practical and emotional. Research suggests that many social workers feel supervision has decreased in quality over the past six years.

If the educative and reflective elements of supervision are not fulfilled there are options. Co-working, consultation forums, group supervision and case discussions can all be positive methods of collaboration. Access to external specialists can also play an important role.

Senior managers establish and have a major impact on the culture of an organisation. Their demonstration of a commitment to reflective practice and continuous development through the systems and processes they create and encourage can have a positive effect on the organisation.

Practitioners’ messages

● Decisions are fallible. To ensure correct outcomes, social workers should constantly assess their decision making.

● It is especially important that social workers are willing to admit they have made a wrong decision and feel they are in an environment where such an admission is supported.

● New evidence or changes to the circumstances of the case should lead to a revaluation of a decision rather than the new information being ignored or reframed so that the original decision can stand.

● Supervision and playing their own devil’s advocate is essential to effective decision-making.

● Supervision should fulfil four roles: managerial, mediation, support and personal development. It should create a space where social workers can admit to difficulties and are encouraged to be constantly self-reflective.

Further reading


 Centre for Excellence and Outcomes in Children and Young People’s Services

Research abstracts

Author LAMING William Herbert

Title The protection of children in England: a progress report

Publisher Stationery Office, 2009, 98p

Abstract The report, which was commissioned by the Department of Children, Schools and Families after the death of baby Peter, attempts to evaluate existing good practice with regard to child protection, identifies potential barriers that may prevent good practice, and makes recommendations for improvements for the future. The review of the government’s child protection reforms stated that the law should be changed so senior managers could be hauled before the General Social Care Council, the social work regulator, and even be struck off. At present, directors of children’s services do not have to comply with a social work code of conduct which is mandatory for all frontline care staff. Lord Laming is also calling for council leaders and senior managers to undergo child protection training because most have worked only in the education system.

Author LAMING William Herbert

Title The Victoria Climbié Inquiry: report of an inquiry by Lord Laming

Publisher Stationery Office, 2003, 405p; CD-Rom

Abstract This details the roles of social services departments, hospitals and health services and the police child protection teams, and discusses the results of seminars on learning from the experience. The report chronicles the events, the extent of injuries, what went wrong, and discusses the future of the child support system; details Victoria’s story, her abusers and the interactions with social services staff; and concludes with a summary of recommendations.

Authors REDER Peter; DUNCAN Sylvia

Title Lost innocents: a follow-up study of fatal child abuse

Publisher Routledge, 1999, 190p, bibliog

Abstract Follows up an earlier study into fatal child abuse, “Beyond blame: child abuse tragedies revisited”. This one examines cases notified to the Department of Health under the Part 8 Review procedure. It considers current knowledge about fatal child abuse and discusses an interactional framework for understanding child maltreatment and professionals’ responses to it. The findings include evidence of links with parental mental health problems, parental substance misuse, a significant under-reporting of fatal abuse, shortcomings in the way that assessments are conducted, and missed warning signs. Makes proposals for promoting the recognition and assessment of risk to children, improving liaison between agencies, enhancing preventive strategies and addressing the ethos and content of professional training.

Authors DALZELL Ruth; SAWYER Emma

Title Putting analysis into assessment: undertaking assessments of need: a toolkit for practitioners

Publisher National Children’s Bureau, 2007, 153p, bibliog

Abstract The toolkit encourages a focus on outcomes for children and explores how professional confidence and knowledge might be improved. Offering a range of materials, including practice tools, activities and case studies, this resource will aid practitioners in their thinking before, during and at the conclusion of their work with children and families; provide managers with materials to use in supervision and practice development activities in the team; and provide trainers with material and programmes for delivering training to those involved in social work and inter-agency assessments.


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