By Richard Devine, Social Worker for Bath and North East Somerset Council
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These are five books that have profoundly influenced my social work practice. These books have been selected for their practical usefulness in our endeavor to be better, more effective social workers. I have not listed them in rank order. I am going to share one every day this week. Yesterday, I shared the first one, Working with Denied Child Abuse.
One line review: An outstanding overview of the challenges of decision making and how we can overcome these, whilst recognizing the limitations of what is possible in risk assessment.
What I learned from this book: Decision-making is one of the most critical, fundamental, and challenging aspects of children’s social work. Surprisingly, I didn’t receive any decision-making training during my degree. As this book is dense with insight, helpful information, and ideas about effective decision-making, I will only make a few key points to give a flavour of its utility.
There has been a longstanding debate about whether it should be an art or a science in social work. There are two types of reasoning related to the art versus science debate, intuition, and formal analytical reasoning. Intuitive reasoning is: Mostly unconscious, looks for patterns, emotion-laden, rapid, draws on practice wisdom. Whereas formal analytical reasoning is: Conscious, slow, deliberate and draws upon actuarial tools.
Munro argues that it shouldn’t be a dichotomy but rather an integration of intuition and formal analytical reasoning. In other words, decision-making is aided when intuitive reasoning is guided by structured guidelines and formal methods of collecting data, and the latter can also be guided by the former. Each approach has strengths and weaknesses.
Under pressure and in scenarios with limited time, intuitive reasoning can be advantageous. However, Munro illustrates the risk of relying entirely on intuitive reasoning by examining the role of cognitive biases, especially in the child protection context. For example, confirmation bias can mean that once an opinion on a family has formed, we are stubbornly resistant to changing our view, even in the face of new compelling evidence. For this reason, Munro writes, ‘the single most important factor in minimizing error is to admit you may be wrong’ (p.42). Availability bias means we give disproportionate value to sensory input or information presented vividly. Over the years, I have read many reports from neighbors or other professionals of parents shouting and screaming at their children, but I found watching a video of this once incredibly impactful. Therefore, the same information presented in different formats can dramatically alter our view. The halo effect is a bias whereby if you view one aspect of a person favorably, you will automatically be positive about other elements of their personality or functioning. For example, if a parent presents as welcoming, courteous, and pleasant to interact with, I am more likely to assume that is how they interact with their partner and children.
Any risk assessment or decision-making process is aided by recognizing the difference between intuition and formal analytical reasoning, as well as understanding the strengths and limitations of each.
Another key idea that I found especially helpful was Munro’s distinction of probability and desirability. Munro points out that an assessment of risk requires an evaluation of probability (how likely is something to happen) AND, crucially, how desirable it is for such an outcome to unfold. Analysis often involves bringing the two together.
For example, if the child has experienced neglect for the past several years (duration/chronicity), it would be reasonable to assess the probability of the children continuing to experience neglect as high. If the severity of neglect is mild, albeit a constant feature of the child’s life (frequency), then we could consider desirability (on a scale from low to high) as relatively low. That is, the child is highly likely to experience neglectful care, and this is mildly undesirable (for their quality of life, development, and outcomes), and this judgment will feed into an overall analysis. In comparison, a case involving a shaken baby presents a different challenge. In some instances, once this tragic situation has happened, the probability of it happening again can be low. However, the outcome (i.e., potential death) is highly undesirable; therefore, this influences the overall judgment.
On a final note, reading Munro’s book, Effective Child Protection removed some of the burdens I used to place upon myself in thinking that I was supposed to predict with 100% accuracy what will happen in cases where maltreatment occurs. On reflection, perhaps, I had been unduly influenced by the death of Peter Connelly, and the publicity that surrounded this during my first year of practice. She helpfully points out that social workers aren’t criticized for making poor decisions necessarily, but for making an inadequate assessment of what was happening at the time. That is an important distinction because it reveals that we can never predict what will happen. At best, we can make a reasonable evaluation based on a rigorous examination of the available information in a moment in time. Social workers, Munro writes, ‘can never make a ‘right’ assessment in the sense of an infallibly correct prediction about the future. They can, however, be ‘right’ in the sense that, on the basis of the evidence they had at the time, this was a reasonable estimate’ (2020, p. 126).
The image of a vulnerable child suffering pain and fear at the hands of their carers stirs up deep feelings of horror and outrage. Equally, the idea of powerful officials invading the privacy of the family and interrogating us on the intensely personal issue of our competence as parents provokes anger and resistance. It is hard to imagine circumstances that pose a greater challenge to reasoning skills: limited knowledge, uncertainty, high emotions, time pressures and conflicting values’ (2020, p. 2).
‘Child protection workers have a duty to promote children’s welfare as well as protect them from maltreatment. They cannot just work to avoid risk. They never face a choice between a safe and a risky option. All the possible avenues hold some dangers and they involve making complex assessments, balancing risks and deciding on the safest path’ (2020 p. 107).
Note: After I read this book, I read Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow (2011), which was a sobering, yet fascinating read about the limitations of human reasoning.
A question: What has been the most influential book, in terms of practical usefulness you have read? Please get in touch or leave a comment below.
An invitation: If you read any book I recommend and you are interested in sharing your learning, I would love for you write a blog post. Just get in touch.
By Richard Devine (18.01.22)