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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Willful Blindness in Child Protection

I have spoken about Heffernan's recent book on willful blindness in a prior post. Its a rather amazing read and I again recommend it. The book raises a number of issues that are quite relevant to child protection work. Here are a few of the themes:

1. Belonging in the group - It is hard to dissent in a group. Her report of a broad range of research in a number of fields of endeavor shows that, even when an individual knew that the decision was likely wrong. The notion that a professional group might be stronger as a result of collective wisdom may well not be true. It appears that, within a corporate team, dissent is difficult to do and often not welcome. There is a strong need for affiliation in human beings. To dissent is to step outside that and create the risk of being ostracized. We do not do well in such a position.

2. Using case plans that don't work - Case planning in many child protection agencies is done under the heavy burden of high caseloads, high turnovers and a favored way of doing things. There is a "corporate" culture about "how" things are done. Unfortunately, this can also lead to interventions that are familiar but for which there is little evidence of effectiveness. For example, there is a great deal of in-home parenting programming for which there is scant data that suggests that any long term changes occur.

3. Failing to look at the research that tells us what does work. In the United States Senate Committee on Finance Hearings on March 10, 2011 a former Oregon foster child, Isha "Charlie" McNeely pointed out a fact that systems often ignore. Foster children, in very large numbers, will experience multiple placements meaning that home may be far less stable and nurturing than before coming into care. Thus, we may be blind to the impact of child protection decisions in which we may be doing harm in the name of protection. The practice question, of course, is whether or not we are considering that in our case planning. Does this child need to come into care, and if so, what is going to make that safe and productive.

4. Family connections matter but in child protection that can be messy so, once parental rights are terminated, it is easier to ignore them. McNeely notes that most foster children will make steps to find the biological roots either during or after aging out of foster care. So instead of being blind to that, how do we manage that? Finding ways to sustain relationships may serve many foster youth better. Child protection workers are reluctant because that can interfere with adoption planning. Even in cases where adoption will not occur, case managing difficult biological relationships is quite challenging within an overworked environment. Biological links may not mean, however, the parents who were incapable. There may be healthier people in the family system who can provide support.

5. Budget cuts mean reduced services. To be blind to that must be willful. In the media we have seen more and more reporting that as the economy has worsened, pressures on family have increased, there is growing poverty and children are in increased need of protective supports. With the right services, we can help families under these economic strains stay safe. The demand for the services is increasing while budgets in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom are getting squeezed. A current example is a story out of Pittsburg in the United States (

Good child protection has eyes wide open. These are but a few examples. Of course, a major challenge is to get the eyes of politicians open to the reality of their decisions.

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