Abstract: Qualitative Exploration of Decision-Making Experiences Among Child Welfare Workers (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Qualitative Exploration of Decision-Making Experiences Among Child Welfare Workers

Friday, January 13, 2023
Encanto B, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Eunhye Ahn, PhD, Assistant Professor, Washington University in Saint Louis, MO
Emily Putnam-Hornstein, PhD, John A. Tate Distinguished Professor for Children in Need, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
Jacquelyn McCroskey, PhD, Professor, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA
Background and Purpose. Previous literature has shown the potential of using data science to inform decision-making in child welfare, including assessing the risk of children and families who come to the attention of the system. Yet relatively scant attention has been paid to how the unique characteristics of child welfare can be incorporated into the building and evaluating decision-making aids. While the unique characteristics of decision-making in child welfare have been well established in the literature, less is known about the experiences of child welfare workers who use various decision-making tools on a daily basis. As part of a broader effort to improve informed decision-making in child welfare, this study qualitatively explored the decision-making experiences among child welfare workers and their perspectives on fairness. This can help understand practical implications and related fairness issues related to assessing the risk of children and families.

Methods. Public child welfare workers (n=10) were recruited to participate in focus groups and share their experiences in making decisions and perspectives on fairness. The participants were required to have at least six months of working experience at the same child protection service organization in California. The following questions were asked in focus groups: (1) What kind of decisions do you make in child welfare practice? (2) What does fairness mean to you when you make decisions? (3) How do you feel about your organization's policies and procedures when you think about the fairness of your decisions? (4) What would ideally fair decision-making look like in public child welfare? The focus groups were thematically analyzed using NVivo 12.

Results. Several important themes emerged relevant to the decision-making experiences of frontline child welfare workers and their perspectives on fairness. Findings fell under six themes: (1) responsibilities of child welfare workers; (2) characteristics of decision-making in child welfare, (3) factors that complicate decision-making, (4) perspectives on fairness, (5) threats to fairness, and (6) suggestions to improve fairness in decision-making. The findings documented how child welfare workers’ decision-making involves an extensive range of information beyond the scope of data currently collected and managed by the child welfare data systems. According to child welfare workers, fairness can be defined as “promoting equitable outcomes among children and families whose circumstances may widely vary.”

Conclusions and Implications. The findings underscored the complexity and interdependency of decision-making in child welfare and the importance of carefully considering child welfare specific values, context, restrictions, and workflow. It is also essential to operationalize the core values of child welfare and incorporate them into decision-making while carefully considering related liability and accountability issues.