Chris Lancelot: Social services need to trust instinct not data

Why do social services seem to get it so wrong, so frequently? We all know cases of child abuse that have been missed despite frequent contact with social workers.

Equally, on other occasions social workers have made 'connections' that simply were not there and have taken children into care for all the wrong reasons, breaking up loving families in the process.

Some have suggested that front-line social workers are too young and inexperienced; others point to overwork, faulty management procedures, or failure to comply with recognised protocols.

Social workers themselves talk about the difficulties of assessing risk if parents are determined to cover up the truth with barefaced lies.

Yet despite all the hard work of loyal social workers and all their good intentions, some 47 pre-school children are killed each year, mostly at the hands of their parents.

Take the appalling case of Baby P, who died despite 60 contacts with health agencies. Why did no-one manage to work out what was going on? Didn't the protocols work? One commentator observed pithily that, in the case of Baby P, there was a perfect paper trail, followed by a dead child.

So do the existing official assessments help or hinder? It is all too easy for social workers and their managers to think that if the paperwork is complete they have done their job and dealt with all risks appropriately. But are the questions being asked true proxies for the real risks?

At times too much data or too specific a set of questions may actually obscure the truth. It may not sound very scientific, but sometimes gut instinct is more accurate than reams of data.

Seeing the overall picture may be the missing element. It is worth remembering that the first to suspect Harold Shipman were the local undertakers. Though not qualified to assess the medical details of each case (which were of course falsified), their overall impressions were clear and correct.

So perhaps doctors, social workers and their managers might do better to rely less on detailed paperwork, instead stepping back to ask themselves a single question: what is your gut instinct, your overall impression? It might save a lot of children's lives.

Dr Lancelot is a GP from Lancashire. Email him at

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