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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Willful Blindness

Margaret Heffernen's book Willful Blindness was published this past week. In it, there are lesson for those who work in and around child protection. Indeed, there are lessons for any of us who work in the mental health fields, criminal justice, business, physical health and just being in a relationship.

As I read her book, I was deeply reminded of the death of Logan Marr just over 10 years ago - a needless death in which I suspect that, like many other child protection deaths, the workers were suffering from a form of Willful Blindness. This happens when a child protection team forms a view on a case which is then becomes the common view of the team. It is hard to stand up with a different and perhaps unpopular view suggesting that the common view may be wrong. In Logan Marr, there appeared to be a view that her mother was not capable and that the former child welfare worker who was now the foster mother was. This would be tragically wrong. You can see the fixed view in the e-mails sent from the case manager that are reported in the Frontline story on the case.

You can see Willful Blindness in the Victoria Climbe case as well. Here, the common view that developed was that this was a housing case and one where the aunt needed to go back to France. This caused various people to be blind to what was quite observable if they were willing to look.

One wonders if Willful Blindness might also have been an issue in the Jeffrey Baldwin case where a decision seems to have been made that the grandmother who would starve Jeffrey to death was a better caregiver than the parents and that was the end of it.

It is difficult to decide to look beyond the commonly held belief. It can result in a worker being seen as a troublemaker who dissents - not a team player. It can disrupt already accepted case plans. It can result in more work. It can buck the view of management and affect promotions and careers. The less powerful a person might be within a hierarchy or the more that an individual has to lose by dissenting, the easier that Willful Blindness really can be.

Willful Blindness also allows us to develop our own view and then go onto believe that what we have decided is right! Why then question our own decisions; our own capacity to analyze a case and draw appropriate case plans from that analysis?

In essence, we need to cure the blindness to recognize that we never have all the data. With that, we can then give ourselves permission to re-consider. But going up against the established view of the team or the agency - that can be very difficult indeed.

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