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 which can lead to several areas of practice concern:
- Believing that what we are seeing is progress;
- Filtering out or minimizing areas of concern;
- anticipating that the intervention will work;
- Believing that “one more try” and the family will get it;
- Focusing only on strengths and ignoring what is not working and the risks that arise from that; and
- 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 this:
- conflicting accounts from family members
- conflicting accounts from different professionals
- conflicting accounts from neighbours
- persistently unmet needs of children
- repeat 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 hard decisions about the case. As social workers, we want to believe that our efforts are creating change – but there are occasions when that is not the case.