Child Protection – Interpreting behaviour

A final factor identified by the original child protection studies, and still pertinent
today, is that social workers may misinterpret parents’ behaviour (Department for
Education 2010c; HM Government 2010a; C4EO 2010). For example, research
has shown that social workers were likely to assume that guilty or evasive behaviour
of parents was related to child abuse. But such behaviour was, on occasions, found
to be the result of parents wanting to keep secret a history of mental illness, learning
disability, illicit drug use or other family problems (Cleaver and Freeman 1995).

In contrast, the apparent co-operation of some parents may result in practitioners
applying the ‘rule of optimism’ (Dingwell et al. 1983). This stems from a number of
assumptions – the strongest being that parents love their children and want the best
for them, and that children’s lives are better if they stay at home, even if that home
is very dysfunctional. The application of the rule of optimism may result in overly
positive interpretations of what parents say and of the behaviour and circumstances
observed. Research suggests that ‘over-confidence in “knowing” the parent or carer,
might lead to misjudgement, over-identification with parents or GPs not seeing concerns
about children’ (Tompsett et al. 2009, p.3).
In these circumstances practitioners
may too readily accept parents’ explanations of events and be reluctant to challenge

them (Cleaver and Nicholson 2007; Brandon et al 2010; Department for Education
2010c). Professionals’ sympathy for parents can lead to expectations for children
being set too low. Lord Laming stresses, ‘It is not acceptable to do nothing when a child
may be in need of help. It is important that the social work relationship, in particular, is not
misunderstood as being a relationship for the benefit of the parents, or for the relationship
itself, rather than a focused intervention to protect the child and promote their welfare’
(Lord Laming 2009, p.24, paragraph 3.2).
Practitioner support which benefits
the parents but does not promote the welfare of the children was also a concern
highlighted in Munro’s first report of the child protection system. She identified ‘a
reluctance among many practitioners to make negative professional judgments about a
parent….In cases where adult-focused workers perceived their primary role as working
within their own sector, failure to take account of children in the household could follow’
(Munro 2010, p.17, paragraph 1.27). A key finding from a review of evidence on
what works in protecting children living with highly resistant families was the need
for authoritative child protection practice.
Families’ lack of engagement or hostility hampered practitioners’ decision-making
capabilities and follow-through with assessments and plans … practitioners
became overly optimistic, focusing too much on small improvements made by
families rather than keeping families’ full histories in mind.
(C4EO 2010, p.2)

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