Friday, 25 January 2013

Situation Awareness - a key skill for Child Protection

Situation awareness is all about knowing what is happening in the environment in which you are working. For child protection professionals this includes the child's world, her/his home and family environment, and the network of helping services around the child. Loss of situation awareness can result in serious negative outcomes. For pilots examples are often given of situations in which navigational errors have resulted in mistaken beliefs about where the aircraft is.  Similar problems can occur in child protection when social workers or other professionals become wrongly convinced that an abusing parent is caring for a child appropriately. 

Situation awareness poses some particular problems for child protection. One is that it is often difficult to obtain direct information from children themselves about what is happening, especially when they are very young.  Another problem is that parents and family members may attempt to mislead by telling untruths or distorting reality to protect themselves. 

There is a big literature on situation awareness which I cannot begin to summarise here. Two types of situation awareness error do seem to be particularly relevant to child protection. The first is 'confirmation bias' which involves a professional paying disproportionate attention to information which supports a working hypothesis formed earlier on. It is only too easy for a social worker, who is required to form a relationship with a mother or father, to begin to see their strengths and ignore their weaknesses. Forms of aberrant behaviour may simply be explained away.

Another type of situation awareness failing is 'fixation error'. This occurs when professionals become too focused on one task or aspect of the work to the exclusion of more important tasks. For example the pilots of a wide-bodied airliner were preoccupied with a landing gear warning light during an approach to Miami International Airport, so much so that they failed to notice that the plane was losing height. It eventually crashed into the Everglades with large loss of life.  In child protection work professionals may become too focused on one child in a family, to the exclusion of siblings, or become focused on the needs of the carer rather than the child.  Manipulative parents can exacerbate fixation errors by feeding erroneous information to the worker.

Being aware of the possibility of confirmation bias and fixation error is the first step on the road to recognising them in one's own practice and the practice of others.  In the long-term we may be able to design services and the working environment so as to minimise the likelihood of these types of failings occurring.