TESS Article 17: The Rule of Optimism

With the current review of child protection in Scotland following the tragic circumstances of Baby P in Haringey I thought it timely to reflect upon my own experience as head of service and now acting director of education and children’s services on this crucial area of work.

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

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

There are two extremes which social workers could adopt which would make their jobs easier. At one end they could adopt an approach where any allegation of abuse or neglect results in immediate removal of the child from the home. At the other end they could trust parents and carers to do their best for children and never remove the child from the home.  Unfortunately life is never quite 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 social workers applying overly positive interpretations to the cases they were assessing.

I’m relatively new to the concept of the “rule of optimism”, although when translating the same rule to my life as teacher I can now 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 culture.

The second reason relates to a general assumption in society that parents love their children. Under this assumption social workers can sometimes be seen to interpret all evidence of child abuse under a positive assumption about the nature of the parent-child relationship. In such circumstances a social worker requires almost incontrovertible proof that abuse has taken place – which is many cases is not possible.

The third reason for social workers erring on the side of the “rule of optimism” are the very negative consequences for families if the identification of neglect or abuse turns out to be mistaken.

The fourth, and most perhaps most compelling reason – and one that is completely counter intuitive to the general public – 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 that this is probably the case for many of my colleagues in schools. Yet what I find so admirable about my 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 role as 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 judgement 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 by our desire to always see the best.

So the next time you are thinking about how easy it must be to be social worker just remember what it must be like to make the decision to remove a child from the family home – or just as difficult – to leave the child in the family home.


1 thought on “TESS Article 17: The Rule of Optimism

  1. Thanks for this article Don in support of our SW colleagues. I’ve been a little surprised at the lack of reaction in Scotland to the tragic events in Haringey – I hope not out of a sense of complacency as we have had cases in our own country which should jolt us.

    When people consider that their job is stressful, they might want to weight up the responsibility inherent in removing a child from the family home or not.

    I think one of the key issues in any authority is not to over-rely on systems but to have well-trained experienced staff who have the confidence to follow-through when they sense that things are not quite right. I also think that the size of caseloads is a factor. 6 families might not sound much – but then factor in the number of siblings in that family and multiple the complicating factors and you have a very different picture.

    All of this merely reinforces our shared viewpoint for the need for council staff to act corporately and share information and concerns at an early stage.

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