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Child protection requires intuition too, says expert

Child protection workers should be encouraged to rely more on gut instincts and intuition to help protect vulnerable youngsters, according to a leading Scottish expert.

Social workers, health workers and others who deal with children affected by abuse, neglect or their own reckless behaviour are regularly involved in complex and high-risk decision-making.

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However academics will argue next week that most are taught to avoid following their instincts and bound up in systems which can limit their ability to make the right choice at the right time.

Duncan Helm, a teaching fellow in child welfare and protection at Stirling University, is a key speaker at a day-long event in Stirling on The Ecology of Judgment, aimed at front line workers and managers in health and social services.

Mr Helm argues that many social work leaders fear and try to prevent workers acting on intuition. After a series of high-profile failures in child protection, inquiries into cases which have gone wrong have compounded the problem.

He says: “My fear is that significant case reviews tend to look for human failure and not look any further than that. The human element at the core of good judgment seems to be getting written out.”

Inquiries into child deaths and other child protection failures tend to look at systems and policies, but not at how decisions are made and what workers need to help balance the head and the heart.

“Sometimes you need to make judgments very quickly with very little certainty. But when you have plenty of time, if you bring intuition where you need deep analysis, you will be in trouble,” Mr Helm explains.

However, children cannot always wait for careful research and lengthy judgments about risk, he says. “If you try to analyse deeply when things are moving very quickly, you’ll be in trouble there too.”

While previous studies have tended to suggest that intuition is a bad basis for decision-making, the latest research points to instincts being much more effective in the field than in the lab, he says. “Research has tended to view the use of intuition as quite a dangerous thing to be controlled or confined. As a result there is a lack of research into how you can use it effectively. And there is a difficulty about how you even stand up and say ‘my gut feeling is this is what we should do’.”

When you have a gut feeling where do you go with that? “Workers say when they come to case notes and records there is no place to record gut feeling. But that sense that ‘I don’t know what this is but I know I’ve seen it before’, can be valuable.”

The situation is complicated, he argues, because people will often fool themselves that they are relying on analysis to make a judgment when in fact they are falling back on intuition.

Mr Helm also acknowledges that due to relatively low levels of public trust, social workers are in a weak position to rely on gut instinct. “It has been seen as a source of potential bias or prejudice and it certainly has that potential. But a consultant surgeon, for example, will use intuition all the time. You can’t look up a book when you are doing a four-hour operation, or do deep analysis when you are trying to stem bloodflow.”

Mr Helm says workers need to be trained to recognise when best to use careful judgment and how to make the best use of their instincts. His recent book Making Sense of Child and Family Assessment attempts to demystify the topic and he hopes the event hosted by the Scottish Child Care and Protection Network, in Stirling on Tuesday, will do the same.

Other key speakers at the event include Sheila Fish of London’s Social Care Instiute for Excellence, who will look at how systems can help prevent child protection crises, while Autumn Roesch-Marsh of the University of Stirling will look at the impact of group dynamics in decision making.

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