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Baby Peter and the uncertainty principle

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Mark Easton | 13:10 UK time, Tuesday, 11 August 2009

When one sees the faces of those who tortured and ultimately killed Baby Peter, we are looking into the eyes of the devious. Tracey Connelly in particular was a skilled liar, able to deceive and manipulate others.

Tracey ConnellyChild abusers can often be very convincing. In Connelly's case, she created the illusion that she was anxious to co-operate with social services to protect her child when, behind closed doors, she was cruelly abusing him.

Such people might be described as sociopaths, individuals with an absence of the social emotions - love, shame, guilt, empathy or remorse - but with a clear facility to deceive and manipulate others. (I wrote about this last November, you may recall.)

The people we ask to spot the threat could hardly be more different - natural carers, people who easily empathise with others. In some ways, one might argue, there is a risk their belief in human nature might get in the way.

In his 2003 inquiry report into the death of Victoria Climbie, Lord Laming came up with the phrase "respectful uncertainty" to describe the attitude social workers need to strike in trying to spot an abuser: that they must be much more sceptical and mistrustful about what might really happening behind closed doors.

The death of Baby Peter, five years later, is cited as evidence that children's services did not learn that lesson. Social workers remained "over optimistic" as Lord Laming put it - too trusting.

Since then, the profession has been looking in the mirror - trying to understand why its assessment frameworks and organisational systems don't seem to work with abusive adults who are adept at lying and deceiving.

The conclusion they have come to is that the frameworks and systems themselves are part of the problem: that the protocols create a fixed view of a situation and new evidence is dismissed.

Recent guidance to front-line social workers says this (Safeguarding: Briefing [105KB PDF]):

• The single most important factor in minimising errors is to admit that you might be wrong.

• There is a tendency to persist in initial judgements or assessments and to re-frame, minimise or dismiss discordant new evidence.

As a recent bit of research into the subject puts it:

"[O]nce we have formed a view on what is going on, we often fail to notice or to dismiss evidence that challenges that picture."

Social work has been described as a child of cultural modernism (Psychosocial Assessment in Social Work [79KB PDF]) - its processes are driven by a belief that science and rationalism can identify the risk and lead professionals to the correct course of action.

Framework diagram by the Department of Health, 2000

This diagram published by the Department of Health in 2000 gives an idea of the analytical models that underpin good practice in social work.

The question, though, is whether the science might be wrong - that professionals are blind to the possibility that the theories of the classroom do not apply in the homes of some children or that the situation might change even while a child is known to be at risk.

To encourage social workers to challenge traditional approaches, there is new guidance available on how to spot the skilled liar - the sociopath.

Table showing two main social strategies

The idea of a "fresh pair of eyes" lies at the heart of Lord Laming's approach. High-quality supervision, he argues, is critical to good practice. Only with oversight will social workers "develop and maintain critical mindsets and work in a reflective way", it is argued.

Despite this, a recent survey of frontline social workers found that most felt their access to adequate professional supervision was no better now than it was when Victoria Climbie died in 2000.

And more than a quarter felt that the situation had actually worsened, with greater emphasis on bureaucratic goals and meeting targets rather than encouraging "respectful uncertainty".

Perhaps a quote from the American philosopher and psychologist John Dewey explains the respectful uncertainty principle best. "Genuine ignorance is profitable" he said back in 1910, "because it is likely to be accompanied by humility, curiosity, and open mindedness".


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