Friday, 14 January 2005 - 8:00 AM

This presentation is part of: Child Welfare Practice

Bias, Stereotypes and Decision-Making in Child Protective Services

Michael L. Howell, MSSW, Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work/Virginia Institute for Social Services Training Activities.

Decisions that are highly influenced by personal biases are made by child protection workers routinely, and go unquestioned by child welfare agencies, despite mounting empirical evidence that stereotypes related to clients’ race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, income, and behavior are factors that influence the decision-making process and frequently lead to families’ continued involvement in the child welfare system (Azzi-Lessing & Olsen, 1996; Courtney et al., 1996; Ortega, Guillean, & Gutierrez Nareja, 1996; Wells, Fluke, & Brown, 1995; Eckenrode, Powers, Doris, Munsch, & Bolger, 1988). This paper describes the outcomes of a quantitative study of factors, including personal biases and stereotypes surrounding parental drug use (Azzi-Lessing & Olsen, 1996), identified as influencing supervisors’ decision-making in child protective service intake units in one Southern state. Eighty-six of the 100 child protective services intake supervisors (74 women, 11 men, predominantly Caucasian) in the state reviewed 10 scenarios alleging child maltreatment (generated from actual reports that failed to meet the state’s legal criteria for investigation). Participants decided which reports to accept for investigation, identified particular decision-making factors from a list, and rated personal and organizational values surrounding parental drug use on a scale developed by the researcher. The majority of participants (including those with many years of experience) repeatedly chose to investigate scenarios that alleged drug use even when they lacked information to suggest that the parent’s behaviors placed children in the home at risk. This pattern suggests that when their values and child welfare policies conflicted, in their desire to protect children supervisors were willing to ignore established legal standards for initiating investigations. The social justice implications of these findings are important for child welfare workers and administrators to consider. First, despite objective decision-making protocols, judgments may be biased by the decision-maker’s belief in stereotypes regarding parental behaviors such as drug use. Second, in a system where poor minority families are already known to be disproportionately overrepresented (Drake & Zuravin, 1998) this data suggests that policies that are intended to protect families from unwarranted intrusion may be ignored or otherwise circumvented by front-line child welfare professionals when value conflicts exist. This paper challenges social workers to consider to what degree, in their efforts to protect children, they ultimately place vulnerable families at risk of further oppression through their decision-making process. Though their mission to protect children is laudable, by failing to critically reflect upon the influence of their own value-based biases on decisions, child welfare workers may practice in a manner fundamentally inconsistent with social work’s tradition of social justice and protecting the vulnerable. Practices to reduce the influence of bias are suggested, including team-decision making models, state- and agency-level systematic aggregate data analysis reviewing for patterns in decision-making, and a critical reflectivity approach (Kondrat, 1999) to supervision and training for agency workers and managers.

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