A Plea for Uncertainty

I recently came across an interesting quotation from the Danish Philosopher Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) who said, “Life can only be understood backwards but must be lived forwards”. I thought this was a really interesting perspective on child protection social work.

In our work with families we spend a great deal of time trying to make sense of people’s lives by looking back and helping them understand what has gone before. We also often use the information gathered as an indicator and predictor of risk. The big question I have always been left with is how certain can I be with my interpretation? Some would say that this is the very essence of professional judgement.

When things go wrong in this arena the Government, the media and the public are all looking for scapegoats, somebody to blame. This is understandable and if anything were to happen to any of my children I would be the first one looking for answers and through my soul-searching seeking for explanations of what had happened. This introspective analysis, however, would have at some point to come to an end, and I would have to start living life forwards. This is not to forget and stop grieving, far from it; it would be a recognition that I would need to move on.

From my experience the health of an organisation can be seen in similar terms. Organisations that are ‘healthy’ are the ones that look outwards and forwards. Organisations that are ‘hurting’ and find difficulty in adjusting to change are caught in endless cycles of introspection, a culture in which the people constantly look back with a degree of nostalgia for some lost age in which child protection social workers were respected and valued.

In over 25 years in social work, I cannot remember a time that we have not been looking back, at times caught in organisational headlights – frozen not knowing which way to go, and defensive because of perceived failure. Yet when we look at the time we are in, children have never been safer. So often social workers get caught up in a sea of despond, losing sight of the good work that is going on in teams.

The trouble is that in the current climate people are always looking for certainty hoping that somebody will provide us with a piece of software in which we can punch in a few numbers into a computer and be given an instant strategy. This search for certainty, however, also potentially robs us of our greatest skill which is our professional judgement. 

Child protection social work is at a crossroads in which we can either become subsumed into a wider social care network or we can drive the agenda forward. Perhaps Nigel Parton’s1 words in 1998 were right when he made a plea for uncertainty and ambiguity in which professionalism is at the centre of good practice. Although this may be scary, the opposite scenario is even more terrifying, with Orwellian implications.

Christopher Durkin is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Northampton.

1Parton, Nigel (1998) ‘Risk, Advanced Liberalism and Child Welfare: The Need to Rediscover Uncertainty and Ambiguity’ British Journal of Social Work 28 pp. 5-27

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