Social Worker: . . . It [threshold] changes all the time . . . it can change through management. It can change because of a serious incident . . . It can be changed by something in the media… I mean, if you look at the smacking debates, you know and legally where, that area is very grey isn’t it, and I think it’s difficult for us to, because we’re, I suppose as a service, are always trying to react to all the other outside influences . . . (Field Note, Social Worker) (Doherty, 2016)[i]
How do we help professionals make the best decisions they can? What role does bias play in child protection? Do parents and their children get just and fair treatment?
These questions occupy social work academic Emily Keddell. She has conducted research in New Zealand and drawn on studies of decision-making in Norway, California and England, which highlighted many of the issues at play and the need for training and supervision to raise awareness.
Ignite met Emily, from University of Otago in New Zealand last summer during her visit to Coventry University as part of the Child Wefare Inequalities Project led by Professor Paul Bywaters
In her presentation Emily reminded us that thinking of child protection decisions as being made by a single person, collecting and objectively appraising a neat set of information to reach a conclusion is a mistake. Social workers are in a much harder place than that.
Their decisions are the result of multiple and often fast moving interactions and negotiations between parents, children, managers, and other professionals. They are driven by pressures from above and outside the process too, never more so than when Press and politicians react in the wake of a child death.
Workforce anxiety swells in an atmosphere of distress and blame and leaves behind an unhelpful legacy of constraining systems and processes with sometimes peverse incentives for example favouring case closure over ensuring sound long term outcomes.
Teams within larger systems can also build up their own specific cutlures, where rules about ways of doing things can operate unseen, contributing to differences in outcomes for families and children
Theories used to aid parctitioners’ decisions can be contradictory and difficult to interpret. Research into the consequences of abuse alerts us to the damage of certain behaviours and contexts, but it also shows the remarkable resilience of children even in quite trying circumstances. Research shows that changing children’s family contexts can be risky as well as protective. It’s hard to predict which way it will go.
Meanwhile like all of us, practitioners are influenced by differing values, beliefs and cultural views for example about how children and parents should behave and be treated. If a practitioner has a strong belief that children should remain in their families of origin unless absolutely impossible, this will play out in the decisons they make.
In terms of inequalities – persistent ethnic, socioeconoimc and gendered inequalities shape who is in contact with child protections services and the experiences of families once they enter them. Without help and space to reflect on their biases, practitioners tend to make a fast ‘anchor hypothesis’ about what is happening for such a family, then look for information to confirm it, rather than remain open to a range of possible explanations and more positive prospects.
Emily Keddell: email@example.com @EmilyK100
Emily’s research is about the decisions made about removing children or not. But Ignite has seen on the ground how that ‘anchor hypothesis’ is make or break in terms of whether the social worker can find strengths to build on, the aspiration or hope they might hold for the family before the children protecion threshold is reached.
This vast array of influences on decisions makes providing consistency in outcomes for families experiencing similar types of struggles or children experiencing similar levels of harm very difficult. Controlling the beast so as to ensure just outcomes for families is challenging indeed.
So how can we get just and fair outcomes for families and children?
Ignite wants to help open a space for reflection for practitioners and the system on what might help. Is it feedback loops where practitioners learn the longer term outcomes of their decisions? Is it developing reflection on bias? Is it introducing the lived experience of women and families?
[i] Doherty, P. (2016). Child protection threshold talk and ambivalent case formulations in ‘borderline’ care proceedings cases. Qualitative Social Work, 1 – 19 doi: DOI: 10.1177/1473325016640062