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Professional curiosity or ‘Opportunities to be curious’ is an emerging theme in both Children and Adults Case Reviews and other reviews completed by the Safeguarding Partnership Board, and this is reflected nationally. It has long been recognised as an important concept in practice with children and adults at risk.

What is professional curiosity / Opportunities to be curious

Professional curiosity / Opportunities to be curious is about exploring and understanding what is happening with children or adults at risk and their wider environment. It is about deeper enquiries and using proactive questioning and challenge. It also relates to understanding your own responsibility and knowing when to act, rather than making assumptions or taking things at face value. In practice, opportunities to be curious is aligned to multi-agency working, collating information from different sources and applying different perspectives. This will lead to developing a better understanding of an adult or child at risk.

Key practice points:

  • Look and Listen
  • Ask and Act
  • Check Out and Reflect
  • Explore and Understand
  • Anticipate but don’t Presume or Assume
  • Look Further and Enquire Deeper
  • Remain Flexible and Open-Minded
  • See the Whole Picture and Beyond the Obvious
  • Think the Unthinkable and Believe the Unbelievable
  • Think Professional Curiosity / Respectful Uncertainty and Challenge
  • Use Evidence, Professional Judgement, Common Sense, Intuition and Gut Feelings

Barriers to professional curiosity / Opportunities to be curious

It is widely recognised that there are many barriers to being professionally curious. Practitioners must be aware of these barriers, which can include:

Disguised compliance is when people around children or adults at risk give the appearance of co-operating with agencies to avoid raising suspicions and allay concerns. Hostile or aggressive behaviour may also be a way to prevent practitioners from asking questions or probing more into situations. Some may simply not engage with practitioners to prevent challenge. Practitioners need to establish the facts and gather evidence about what is happening. Focussing on outcomes rather than processes helps to remain person-centred.

The ‘rule of optimism’ promoting positive risk taking is about a strength-based approach, but this does not mean that new or escalating risks should not be treated seriously. The ‘rule of optimism’ is a well-known dynamic in which professionals tend to rationalise away new or escalating risks despite clear evidence to the contrary.

Normalisation refers to social processes through which ideas and actions come to be seen as ‘normal’ and become taken-for-granted or ‘natural’ in everyday life. Because they are seen as ‘normal’ they cease to be questioned and are therefore not recognised as potential risks or assessed as such.

Professional deference practitioners who have most contact with the person are in a good position to recognise when the risks to them are escalating. However, there can be a tendency to defer to the opinion of a more senior professional who has limited contact with the person but who can view the risk as less significant. Be confident in your own judgement and always outline your observations and concerns to other professionals, be courageous and challenge their opinion of risk if it varies from your own. Escalate ongoing concerns through your manager and use the Safeguarding Partnership Boards’ Resolving Professional Differences Policy

Confirmation bias this is when we look for evidence that support or confirm our own preconceived view and ignore contrary information that refutes them. It occurs when we filter out potentially useful facts and opinions that don’t coincide with our perception.

Confidence in managing tension disagreement, disruption and aggression from families or others, can undermine confidence and divert meetings away from topics the practitioner wants to explore and back to the family’s own agenda. Training, supervision or peer/manager support in difficult situations can help to feel more in control.

Dealing with uncertainty questionable accounts, vague or withdrawn disclosures, deception and inconclusive medical evidence are common in safeguarding practice. Practitioners are often presented with concerns which are impossible to substantiate. In such situations, ‘there is a temptation to discount concerns that cannot be proved’.

A person-centred approach requires practitioners to remain mindful of the original concern and be professionally curious.

  • ‘Unsubstantiated’ concerns and inconclusive medical evidence should not lead to case closure without further assessment
  • Withdrawn allegations still need to be investigated wherever possible
  • The use of risk assessment tools can reduce uncertainty, but they are not a substitute for professional judgement
  • Social care practitioners are responsible for triangulating information such as, seeking independent confirmation of information and weighing up information from a range of sources, particularly when there are differing accounts and considering different theories and research to understand the situation

Other barriers to professional curiosity / Opportunities to be curious

Inadequate supervision, complexity and pressure of work, changes of practitioners leading to repeatedly ‘starting again’ in casework, closing cases too quickly, fixed thinking/preconceived ideas and values, and a lack of openness to new knowledge are also barriers to a professionally curious approach.

Opportunities to be curious are likely to flourish when practitioners:

  • Attend good quality training to help them develop
  • Have access to good management support and supervision
  • Have empathy (‘walk in the shoes’) of the person to consider the situation from their lived experience
  • Remain diligent in working with the person and their family/network, developing professional relationships to understand what has happened and its impact on all involved
  • Always try to see the person on their own
  • Listen to people who speak on behalf of the person and who have important knowledge about them
  • Be alert to those who prevent professionals from seeing or listening to the person
  • Do not rely on the opinion of only one person, wherever possible access information from a variety of sources
  • Have an analytical and reflective approach
  • Develop the skills and knowledge to hold difficult conversations

Further Information

Resolving Professional Differences (Escalation) Policy

Safeguarding Board Website: https://www.safeguardingcambspeterborough.org.uk/

Safeguarding Training: https://safeguardingcambspeterborough.org.uk/availabletraining/

2021 – Adapted with permission from Hertfordshire Safeguarding Adults Board

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