Abstract: Are They Safe? Exploration of Decision-Making in Child Welfare (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Are They Safe? Exploration of Decision-Making in Child Welfare

Thursday, January 21, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Christine Rogerson, Ph.D., Doctoral Candidate, Simmons University, MA
Melinda Gushwa, PhD, LICSW, Associate Professor & MSW Director, Simmons College, Boston, MA
Emily Douglas, PHD, Professor, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, MA
Background and Purpose

Child welfare workers (CWWs) make countless daily decisions regarding child safety. Standardized assessment tools focusing on social support, environment, history and other risk factors are often used to inform decisions; yet there is scant research regarding their decision-making processes. This study explores the research question: What factors contribute to CWWs decision-making around substantiation of maltreatment allegations and decisions to reunify?


CWWs were recruited nationally to participate in an online survey regarding multiple aspects of practice. A total of 619 CWWs from 15 states responded. Two open-ended questions explored decision-making factors in removing children or returning children to caregivers: For investigation or assessment professionals: When you are deciding whether to substantiate/indicate/support an allegation of maltreatment, what are the most influential factors that go into your decision-making process? And, For ongoing or family reunification professionals: When you are thinking about whether or not to reunify, what are the most influential factors that go into your decision-making? Participants were asked to list up to five responses. This qualitative study utilized a descriptive case study, single case design to describe the phenomenon of decision-making. The data analysis process consisted of coding and re-coding responses using NVIVO-12, while triangulating themes with researchers’ first hand observation/experience within the child welfare system and child welfare policies/procedures.


Five themes emerged from the data: Confirmed Reports & Evidence, Caregiver Behavior & Compliance, Assessment Tools & Opinions, Might Help Kids, and Might Hurt Kids. Results indicate that when CWWs are faced with deciding whether or not to substantiate allegations of maltreatment or reunify, they are influenced by forming an assessment picture that includes parental behavior, and cooperation and compliance with the case plan. Statements gathered, collateral contacts, evidence pertaining to the allegation, safety assessments, and the severity of the alleged maltreatment also play a role. Further, prior history of maltreatment, if the parents were ‘stable’ (mental health, income, employment, housing, substance use), and if they had support in place also were key factors in the decision-making process. Interestingly the data did not show case consultation, overall well-being of the child or utilization of specific decision-making tools to be highly utilized in decision-making.

Conclusions and Implications

This study has shed some light on the factors that influence CWWs decision-making at crucial times in the life of a case. While workers have access to evidence-based assessment and decision-making tools, as well as supervisors to consult with, findings indicate that workers instead look to specific case incidents or behaviors to guide decisions. Further, results indicate that decision-making often centers around implied ‘stability’ of the caregivers to include mental health, sobriety, financial means and housing. Child welfare policies generally exclude poverty as a determining factor in maltreatment, while sobriety or compliance with mental health treatment has not been found to be a consistent predictor in determining if maltreatment could occur. Identifying what causes caseworkers to resort to subjective over objective means of decision making might help influence policy and practice.