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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The rule of Optimism

I have recently been reading the work of Brandon et al., (2012) on learning from Serious Case Reviews in the UK for the period 2009-2011. It reminded me of the "Rule of Optimism" that exists within social work - indeed most of the helping professions.

In essence, we want things to work out. After all, we go into these professions seeking to make a positive difference in the lives of our clients. We want to believe that what we are doing is working.  The rule of optimism can blind us to what is really going on. This can lead to several areas of practice concern:

1. Believing that what we are seeing is progress;
2. Filtering out or minimizing areas of concern;
3. anticipating that the intervention will work;
4. Believing that "one more try" and the family will get it;
5. Focusing only on strengths and ignoring what is not working and the risks that arise from that; and
6. Overly positive interpretations of what is going on.

This is not to say that we should be looking only for the negatives. But it does tell us that we need to ensure a balanced view. When a client is not doing well, it is fair to ask if we are providing the correct services. It is also important to ask if the issue is that the client is not progressing - and if not - why not? There can be many reasons that are not associated with the worker - client refusing to see the problem; poor engagement in change; feigned compliance to make it look like they are working.

Disguised compliance can look like:

lconflicting accounts from family memberslconflicting accounts from different professionalslconflicting accounts from neighbourslpersistently unmet needs of childrenlrepeat incidents of harm/neglect to children (Community Care 2008)

Good child protection practice allows workers to see that their optimism may not be reflective of what is going on - this is where good supervision can make a difference. Our role is not to take on responsibility for the success of the client. The rule of optimism means that we are likely to give clients too many chances which is an adverse outcome for children in far too many cases. It exposes them to ongoing instability as child protection comes and goes without achieving successful outcomes.

The rule of optimism is also about professionals who do not want to acknowledge that things are not getting better and that they need to make the hard decisions about the case.


  1. in a certain child protection prog running in a group of 3 districts, a well experienced international funding agency appears to hold similar optimism blurred vision; the 4 yrs long prog operates in campaign mode, where the community as well as implementing field staff run surveys, community wall,photography etc projects of 2 months each,without recording changes (if at all) longitudinally.much energy goes behind chasing the no.-villages covered, children surveyed, adolescents trained...

  2. The rule if optimism is essential for competent workers. Burnt out workers just don't have it whilst newer workers see evrrything with optimism. I have seen kids caught in these situations; some miss the opportunity of having a safe and stable home because workers thought a long-term order was appropriate from the day of removal others continue to live in limbo because maybe the family will get it right next time. I think the worst cases are when workers get so blind sighted and only see the good and the balanced view is not sought. Or the other cases where the parents don't get it right and you challenge them but the judiciary growls at you for not allowing the parents to get it wrong; the judge somehow thinks you are being unfair and too critical so they give the parent another chance..

    1. I am currently nearing the end of my ASYE and feel my optimism and good will can be a barrier to further investigation and challenge. Do you think you could share some words of wisdom?

  3. Chris Mills' blog (UK) has a number of posts related to the kinds of errors that may occur in decision making compromising safety which may interest

  4. I very much like Chris Mill's blog.

  5. For me, the major question I try to keep in mind is how did the client find their way into the problem as well as what might be the way out that protects the safety of the child - this is what it is about. Too often we get hung up on what the parents need assuming that will make it better for the child - so - what is it that will benefit the child? That's my major question