What’s your agenda? Reflective supervision in community-based child welfare services in Aotearoa

Matt Rankine

A new article by Matt Rankine reports on findings of a qualitative research project exploring supervision in non- statutory child welfare agencies in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Matt notes that the contracting environment  of community-based child welfare services (CCW) in the  managerialist climate of  Aotearoa New Zealand  necessitates constantly renegotiated contractual partnerships, service targeting and measured outcomes.

Reflective supervision is essential to counter the perceived negative impacts of managerialism on CCW work. Within this environment, there is a struggle to ensure supervision provides reflective spaces for social workers to develop in their work with service users despite the demands of meeting organisational imperatives.

Matt’s  article reports on a qualitative study which critically analyses the espoused theory and theories-in-use (Argyris & Schön, 1974)  about reflective supervision held by social workers practising in the demanding environment of community child welfare agencies.

This article shares some findings from  the first phase of the research, analsysed from data from nine key informant interviews with social workers  who had both considerable experience in CCW and academic experience. Nine key informants with considerable expertise were interviewed and the findings highlighted that community based child welfare social workers are influenced by maintaining self-awareness and professional relationships alongside their organisational and professional obligations. To maintain professional practice, social workers require reflective supervision to engage in critical self-reflection, promote resiliency and critically consider the wider cultural and environmental factors impacting on practice. Findings indicate that social workers working in CCW settings are influenced by numerous organisational and professional obligations within a changing and risk-averse managerial environment.

Reflective supervision helps workers to engage in self-reflection, consider wider sociocultural factors and to critically develop social-justice-informed practice with service users.

Read the full article here:

Rankine, M., Beddoe, L., O’Brien, M., & Fouché, C. (2017). What’s your agenda? Reflective supervision in community-based child welfare services. European Journal of Social Work, 1-13. doi:10.1080/13691457.2017.1326376


Argyris, C., & Schön, D. (1974). Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

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Harmful supervision

“Supervision is an important component of professional learning, growth, and development in the helping professions. It is at the heart of professional practice on a career-long basis for some professions and a significant element in education and internship for others. Regardless of how long it continues in a professional’s career, it is a practice that is expected to model effective relationship building, the sensitive giving and receiving of feedback, and the careful management of power and difference” (Beddoe, 2017, 88).

With this significance of supervision in mind, it is thus alarming to note that harmful and inadequate supervision remains a persistent problem in the helping professions( see for example Ellis et al. 2014, and  Ellis, Creaner,  Hutman, & Timulak, 2015).

The important journal, the Clinical Supervisor has just published a special issue on harmful supervision: Narratives of harmful clinical supervision: An unacknowledged truthEleven anonymous narratives were provided by practitioners who had  experienced harmful supervision. In the introduction the guest editors, Ellis,  Taylor, Corp, Hutman, and Kangos (2017, p. 4) state:

Despite the ethical mandate “do no harm,” harmful clinical supervision seems to be occurring internationally among mental health disciplines at an alarming rate. Harmful supervision appears to be largely unacknowledged, unrecognized, and not understood, especially from the supervisees’ perspective.

In an analysis of the narratives of  harmful supervision problems of power, boundary transgressions, racism, sexism and systemic inadequacy were found.   Whatever the concerns powerful and unresponsive hierarchies silenced the voices of the supervisees. In the synthesis which completes the issue  McNamara, Kangos,  Corp,  Ellis,  and  Taylor (2017, p. 132) write:

Recurrent across the narratives was a theme of feeling afraid that seeking help and speaking up about a harmful supervisor would have negative ramifications for their personal and professional lives. This fear seemed to stem from the supervisees’ positions in the overall power structures, and the lack of a chain of command to create an environment of accountability and support that would allow the supervisee and/or other professionals at these agencies to feel empowered to speak out.

It is these institutional barriers that must be addressed, especially in an era where so much supervision has reverted to case management and checking timeframes fro action, rather than reflection and honest respectful feedback. I was lucky to be able to write a commentary on the harmful supervision narratives. In my new article in this issue, the expectations of what should constitute excellent supervision form a perspective through which a series of narratives of harmful supervision are reviewed.  Beddoe, L. (2017). Harmful supervision: A commentary. The Clinical Supervisor, 36(1), 88-101. doi:10.1080/07325223.2017.1295894    Read here

PS When free e-prints are gone, if you can’t access via your institution please contact me via ResearchGate 


Beddoe, L. (2017). Harmful supervision: A commentary. The Clinical Supervisor, 36(1), 88-101. doi:10.1080/07325223.2017.1295894    Read free here

Borders, L. D. (2017). Do no harm[ Editorial] . The Clinical Supervisor, 36(1), 1-3. doi:10.1080/07325223.2017.1312833 Read free here.

Ellis, M. V., Berger, L., Hanus, A. E., Ayala, E. E., Swords, B. A., & Siembor, M. (2014). Inadequate and harmful clinical supervision: Testing a revised framework and assessing occurrence. The Counseling Psychologist, 42(4), 434-472. doi:10.1177/0011000013508656

Ellis, M. V., Creaner, M., Hutman, H., & Timulak, L. (2015). A comparative study of clinical supervision in the Republic of Ireland and the United States. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 62(4), 621-631. doi:10.1037/cou0000110

Ellis, M. V., Taylor, E. J., Corp, D. A., Hutman, H., & Kangos, K. A. (2017). Narratives of harmful clinical supervision: Introduction to the special issue. The Clinical Supervisor, 36(1), 4-19. doi:10.1080/07325223.2017.1297753

McNamara, M. L., Kangos, K. A., Corp, D. A., Ellis, M. V., & Taylor, E. J. (2017). Narratives of harmful clinical supervision: Synthesis and recommendations. The Clinical Supervisor, 36(1), 124-144. doi:10.1080/07325223.2017.1298488

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Decision –making variability in child welfare project: A research update

Emily Keddell and Ian Hyslop 

Decision making in child protection practice is a complex process which can have significant implications for children and families in Aotearoa NZ. Emily Keddell and Ian Hyslop are currently engaged in a small mixed methods exploratory study into understanding what causes decision variability – that is, differences in decisions when the child and family circumstances are similar. (see earlier post here).

Emily and Ian are also interested in decision quality, and are exploring practitioner perceptions of what this might look like. The research design takes a decision ecology approach which considers the personal, technical or procedural process of decision making within a wider context of organizational drivers and macro/structural influences (Baumann, Dalgleish, Fluke, & Kern, 2011).

The study had two phases. In the first, an on-line survey gathered both quantitative  and qualitative data on respondents’ perceptions in response to a family portrayed in a vignette. Several stages were given in order to mimic the ‘in time’ nature of real practice, where more information is gained over time, and things change! Respondents were asked all sorts of things at each stage about their perceptions of risk, perceptions of safety, how serious they thought the outcome would be if there was no intervention, how close they were to forming a belief the children were in need of care and protection, what they thought was causing the family problems, and what decision they would make. They were also asked about their goals for the family, who else would have input to the decisions and how their decisions would be shaped by knowledge, ethics and legal considerations. A further twist is that in order to examine ethnic bias, the vignette was split by ethnicity: half of the respondents got it as a Maori family, half as Pakeha. Both CYFS and NGO workers were recruited, and sixty seven people completed the survey (thank you!).

Although the sample size is small,  there were several fascinating findings.  here is a summary, you can read a more detailed briefing paper from the link below. When information is vague and of low concern, (like many first notifications) there are very diverse perceptions of risk, safety and decision outcomes (remember everyone got the SAME VIGNETTE). Our ‘frames’ are kicked into gear and we ‘fill in’ the gaps in knowledge according to our own assumptions or values. As concerns get more serious, there is more convergence of views. Furthermore…..

There is a big difference between NGO and CYF workers in terms of perceptions of risk – with CYF workers consistently perceiving risk as lower than NGO workers. This is an areas where more consensus needs to be established.

Ethnic bias was evident – though not consistently statistically significant. What we found was that as the concerns increased, so did the degree of bias in relation to the Maori whanau, for whom the biggest difference was in relation to ‘forming a belief’ the children were in need of care and protection. The Maori children were viewed as more at risk and closer to the statutory definition of risk (in need of care and protection) than the Pakeha children. This is significant, as it begins to flesh out the ‘bias’ side of the risk-bias debate in this country (see (Cram, Gulliver, Ota, & Wilson, 2015; Drake, Lee, & Jonson-Reid, 2009; Keddell, 2015, 2016).

Another interesting finding was around practitioner perceptions of what caused decision variability, in particular the role of organisational elements such as workload and site/area differences, as well as the influence of personal values and preferred knowledge bases/theories (see attached research briefing).

The second stage of this project involved in-depth qualitative interviews with teams and individual practitioners across four demographically diverse Oranga Tamariki sites (thanks again to all those who chose to participate). Transcription of these is nearly complete, and some initial analysis of the interview data is currently underway. This analysis will begin to build a picture of state social workers’ experiences of the consistency of decision making processes and outcomes. Differences in themes between sites will also be examined. The intent is to shed light on our understandings of what causes variable decisions in response to cases that are similar, and to understand what helps or hinders careful and effective decision making. Watch this space!

You can read a research briefing paper: Keddell, E & Hyslop, I. (2017). First findings from phase one of the Child Welfare Decision-Making Variability Project : Research briefing paper.

Research briefing download here:  Emily Keddell DMResearch_brief_2016


Baumann, D. J., Dalgleish, L., Fluke, J., & Kern, H. (2011). The decision-making ecology. Washington, DC: American Humane Association.

Cram, F., Gulliver, P., Ota, R., & Wilson, M. (2015). Understanding overrepresentation of indigenous children in child welfare data: An application of the drake risk and bias models. Child Maltreat, 20(3), 170-182. doi: 10.1177/1077559515580392 read here

Drake, B., Lee, S. M., & Jonson-Reid, M. (2009). Race and child maltreatment reporting: Are blacks overrepresented? Children and Youth Services Review, 31(3), 309-316. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2008.08.004

Keddell, E. (2015). Researching the role of ethnicity in child protection decision-making. Paper presented at the 14th Australasian Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect, Auckland. See presentation slides here

Keddell, E. (2016). Substantiation, decision-making and risk prediction in child protection systems. Policy Quarterly, 12(2), 46. Read free here

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Questioning the uncritical acceptance of neuroscience in child and family policy and practice: A review of challenges to the current doxa

In January I asked  in my post on RSW Blog  ‘Brains, biology and tests for future burdenhood

Who hasn’t seen the brains?

The luridly coloured images of two children’s brains, side by side. Presented as cast iron evidence of the impact of child neglect.  I remember exactly where I was when I first saw that image. The venue was a lecture theatre at my university (at least 10 years ago) and the presenter was a professional I knew and (still do) held in high regard. The emotional impact of seeing the two brains was considerable- the ‘normal’ brain of a child of a particular age contrasted with the apparently shrunken brain of a child who had suffered abuse and neglect.

And  the brains were to reappear with alarming regularity….. I heard a while ago that there are still social workers handing around pictures of those brains., presumably to frighten struggling parents.  Perhaps they still adorn the staff room walls in early childhood centres.

The brains were a con. The most commonly used image, as pointed out by Healy (2015, p.1499) is devoid of a detailed case history and fails to provide a comparison scale, both of which would be evidence of good academic rigour, and most importantly:

… the technologies themselves provide compelling visual images that are accessible, but also easily misinterpreted, by a range of health professionals, users of services and the general public

what do we have in Aotearoa New Zealand? Growing numbers of children in care (yet every social worker knows that the state is a very poor parent and can’t deliver love); an enormous prison muster that is disproportionately Maori; persistent and racialised health inequalities, the impact of welfare austerity (Edmiston, 2016) and growing homelessness.  The sad sight of people queuing with their children to get basic food at the foodbank days before Christmas (RadioNZ, 2016).

We have a callous, cynical and morally bankrupt lot in power. They will spend money on anything to show they ‘care’ as long as it’s not dismantling this regime that dresses up punishment and cruelty as rehabilitation. For more discussion of these issues and a review of the literature please read our new article  Beddoe and Joy (2017) here for more  


Beddoe, L. (2017)  Brains, biology and future burdenhood. Reimagining Social Work. http://www.reimaginingsocialwork.nz/2017/01/brains-biology-and-tests-for-future-burdenhood-misguided-blind-faith-in-science/

Beddoe, L., & Joy, E. (2017). Questioning the uncritical acceptance of neuroscience in child and family policy and practice: A review of challenges to the current doxa. Aotearoa NewZealand Social Work, 29(1), 65-76.  Read here

Edmiston, D. (2016). ‘How the other half live’: Poor and rich citizenship in austere welfare regimes. Social Policy and Society, 1-11. doi:10.1017/s1474746416000580

Healy, K. (2016). After the biomedical technology revolution: Where to now for a bio-psycho-social approach to social work? British Journal of Social Work, 46(5), 1446-1462.

RadioNZ (2016, 7 December). Christmas Queues. http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/319853/christmas-queues-begin-at-auckland-city-mission

Other refs

Beddoe , L. (2014). Feral families, troubled families: The rise of the underclass in New Zealand 2011-2013 New Zealand Sociology 29(3), 51-68.

Belsky, J., & de Haan, M. (2011). Annual research review: Parenting and children’s brain development: The end of the beginning. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 52(4), 409-428.

Crossley, S. (2015a). Realising the (troubled) family’, ‘crafting the neoliberal state’. Families, Relationships and Societies, 5(2), 263-279(doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1332/204674315X14326465757666

Crossley, S. (2015b, May 25). ‘Feral families’ or a ‘filthy civilization’? [Blog post]. Retrieved from Re-Imaging social work: http://www.reimaginingsocialwork.nz/2015/05/feral-families-or-a-filthy-civilization/

Telegraph (2016, 12 December). Test predicts which children will grow up to be drain on society – when they are just three years old http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2016/12/12/test-predicts-children-will-grow-drain-society-just-three/

Macvarish, J.(2016).Viewing children as future criminals: Debunking a new study predicting which kids will become a ‘burden’.  Accessed 23-12-6 at http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/viewing-children-as-future-criminals/19102#.WFyZItJ96pp

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To post or not to post? Perceptions of the use of a closed Facebook group as a networked public space


Writing on the wall-  a safe place for debate?

Neil Ballantyne, Simon Lowe, Liz Beddoe 

The expansion of social media is associated with rapid growth in digital spaces for civic engagement and deliberative democratic discussion.  Yet while these networked public spaces offer many possibilities for engagement and interaction, the technology also shapes social dynamics, raising questions about managing professional relationships and boundaries online.  The development of a closed Facebook for social workers in New Zealand provided an opportunity to explore their perceptions on the use of a shared social media space for information sharing, professional deliberation and debate about public issues: our findings highlight perceived benefits and pitfalls.

A  research team was formed, with four of the members also  members of SWANZ,  a social work Facebook group. We shared an interest in social media within the social work profession, and have  at various points been active participants in discussion and debate within the group.  Following an April 2015 announcement by the New Zealand government of plans to reform child protection services ( see for example this blog post) and alter the structure and funding of social services ( see Mike O’Brien’s post) , SWANZ became a place where group members shared information about proposed policy changes and discussed and debated these and other issues.

It was a time of intense debate and discussion as the changes proposed were likely to have  a major impact on social work and social services in Aotearoa New Zealand.

As participants we observed the ebb and flow of discussion and noticed the growth of interest in the group, indicated by a rapid rise in membership.  We also observed that, as in other online communities, some members were very active in making contributions and comments to the online discussion, but the vast majority were relatively passive participants (they may be logging in and reading content posted to the group but made little or no active contributions to discussion or debate).  The study aimed to explore with participants factors associated with active engagement in this networked public space, and factors associated with reluctance to participate.  Our specific research questions were:

  1. What do participants value about their membership of the SWANZ Facebook group?
  2. What problems or issues are associated with membership?
  3. What factors are associated with active engagement and with reluctance to participate in the SWANZ community?

Our recently published article presents our research as an exploratory case study which highlights the potential benefits and pitfalls associated with the use of a networked public space for debating issues of concern to professional social workers.

The creation of an online community of practice in which users can engage and share news, information and opinions was valued highly. However, in this case study, there were issues associated with examples of online incivility and a pervasive reluctance to express policy or political opinions because of concerns about critical comments by others. What is not clear is the extent to which concerns about critical feedback are just a normal, and sensible, part of interaction in networked public spaces; and the extent to which our respondents were reacting to a group climate and recent events in this particular Facebook group. It is also possible that sensitive issues, such as race and culture, pose particular dilemmas for democratic deliberation in the context of a postcolonial society where indigenous people are vastly over-represented in the care and justice systems.

Ballantyne, N., Lowe, S., & Beddoe, L. (2017). To post or not to post? Perceptions of the use of a closed Facebook group as a networked public space. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 35(1), 20-37. doi:10.1080/15228835.2017.1277903

Read full text here 

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Engaging the social work profession in the transnational professional space.

Crossing Borders : Migrant Professionals

Allen Bartley, Liz Beddoe and Shajimon Peter


This study is an Aotearoa New Zealand-wide participatory action research project involving all the significant stakeholders in the social work profession to develop an agreed-upon set of standards and expectations of context-specific professional and socio-cultural transitioning programmes for overseas-qualified social workers in New Zealand. This is the latest phase in our “Crossing Borders- Migrant Professionals study”. Our publications are listed here.

This project builds on growing national and international evidence that the increasing transnationalism of the social work profession has not been matched by a readiness of the profession’s key stakeholders to prepare adequately for the challenges of an increasingly transnational workforce.

The stakeholders involved in the project will include the professional bodies: ANZASW, the SWRB, the Tangata Whenua Social Workers Assocation, Tangata Whenua Voices, and also social work employers, specialist employment agencies and the Council for Social Work Education Aotearoa…

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Supervision in social work in Aotearoa New Zealand: Challenges in changing contexts

Liz Beddoe 

The major supervision journal The Clinical Supervisor has just started a new series, which will run over several years: Global developments in clinical supervision, see here for the Call for Papers.

The series, “Global Developments in Clinical Supervision,” will provide the opportunity to systematically document the current professional status of clinical supervision, as well as ongoing efforts to enhance the specialty, in a range of professions/disciplines around the world.

It is hoped the series will allow clinical supervision advocates an opportunity to share their work and learn from each others’ efforts; will encourage networking among practitioners, educators, supervisors-in-training, and researchers across disciplines and countries; and will stimulate research needed to further advance the specialty. As an ongoing series, these publications may serve as “baseline data” for future comparisons as well as a chronicle of the evolution of clinical supervision.

I was very pleased to be invited to submit an article for the launch of the series, with a focus on supervision in social work in Aotearoa New Zealand (Beddoe, 2016). As I started to compile the material for the article I was aware of how much  research and writing on supervision has emanated from this context over the last few decades.

Supervision is a subject of much study and discussion in social work in Aotearoa New Zealand. It is a popular topic within the country’s only peer-reviewed journal, Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work (https://anzswjournal.nz/anzsw). Three national supervision conferences have been convened, in 2000, 2004, and 2010, with an earlier one in 1970 (O’Donoghue & Tsui, 2012 ). I’ve been involved in a number of supervision related research projects and started a blog-The Supervision Research Agenda.

I wrote that Allyson Davys and I  along with Kieran O’Donoghue (and his Hong Kong-based collaborator Ming-sum Tsui) have made significant contributions to the professionalization of social work supervision in New Zealand by advocacy, educational development, and expanding the research and scholarship over several decades. Four books have been published on supervision since 2003 by social work authors   (Beddoe & Davys, 2016 ; Beddoe & Maidment, 2015 ;  Davys & Beddoe, 2010;  Davys & Beddoe, 2015; O’Donoghue, 2003 ).

I noted that while the word count for the article didn’t allow space for  a full review of the literature; however, research activity is lively in Aotearoa New Zealand, with authors contributing to the international literature on themes beyond local concerns (see, for example, the work of O’Donoghue (2015) ; Beddoe, (2015); Beddoe, Karvinen-Niinikoski, Ruch, & Tsui, (2015 );   O’Donoghue & Tsui, (2015)  and Tsui, O’Donoghue,  & Ng (2014).

The article also discusses the contributions of tangata whenua writers about supervision in social work in Aotearoa New Zealand. I wrote about the innovations  to be found in the work being undertaken to develop specific approaches to supervision that reflect and are responsive to Māori worldviews.( see for example Eketone, 2012; Eruera, 2005,2012)  The aims of these approaches to supervision are to ensure the cultural identities and issues impacting within clinical social work practice are brought to the forefront in supervision…….

Read the full article here:

Beddoe, L. (2016). Supervision in social work in Aotearoa New Zealand: Challenges in changing contexts. The Clinical Supervisor, 35(2), 156-174. doi:10.1080/07325223.2016.1217497

PS When free e-prints are gone, if you can’t access via your institution please contact me via ResearchGate 


Beddoe, L. (2015). Supervision and developing the profession: One supervision or many? China Journal of Social Work, 8(2), 150-163. doi:10.1080/17525098.2015.1039173

Beddoe , L., & Davys, A. (2016). Challenges in professional supervision: Current themes and models for practice. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Beddoe, L., Karvinen-Niinikoski, S., Ruch, G., & Tsui, M.-s. (2015). Towards an international consensus on a research agenda for social work supervision: Report on the first survey of a Delphi study. British Journal of Social Work. doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcv110

Davys, A., & Beddoe , L. (2010). Best practice in professional supervision: A guide for the helping professions. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Eketone, A. (2012). The purposes of cultural supervision . Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work , 24(3/4), 20-30.
Read free here.

Eruera, M. (2005) ‘He Korero Korari.’ In L. Author, J. Worrall and F. Howard (eds) Weaving Together the Strands of Supervision. Proceedings of the 2004 conference, Auckland, New Zealand (pp.59–66). Auckland: Faculty of Education, University of Auckland.

Eruera, M. (2012) ‘He kōrari, he kete, he kōrero.’ Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work  24, (3/4), 12–19.Read free here. 

Davys, A., & Beddoe , L. (2015). Interprofessional supervision: Opportunities and challenges. In L. Bostock (Ed.), Interprofessional Staff Supervision in Adult Health and Social Care Services (Vol. 1, pp. 37-41). Brighton, England: Pavilion Publishing

O’Donoghue, K. (2015). Issues and challenges facing social work supervision in the twenty-first century. China Journal of Social Work, 8(2), 136-149. doi:10.1080/17525098.2015.1039172

O’Donoghue, K., & Tsui, M.-s. (2015). Social Work Supervision Research (1970–2010): The Way We Were and the Way Ahead. British Journal of Social Work, 45(2), 616-633.

Tsui, M.-s., O’Donoghue, K., & Ng, A. K. T. (2014). Culturally Competent and Diversity-Sensitive Clinical Supervision. In C. E. Watkins & D. L. Milne (Eds.), The Wiley International Handbook of Clinical Supervision (pp. 238-254). Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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Solidarity and support: Feminist memory work focus groups with working-class women studying social science degrees in Australia.

Dee Michell, Liz Beddoe, Heather Fraser and Michele Jarldorn 

We have just published a  new article reporting on our use of a two-phase, feminist memory work  study in a project conducted with 11 women, social science students at an Australian university. We begin by describing government-led attempts to widen participation in Australian universities because 10 of the 11 women who participated in our project were from non-traditional backgrounds.

We discuss qualitative group research, identifying some of the benefits and limitations of focus groups, before differentiating them from feminist memory work and analysing key findings. Using excerpts from participants’ written stories and oral discussions, we analyse some of the obstacles the women faced trying to complete their studies.

Our attention then turns to methodological concerns where we examine memory work as a feminist inquiry method. As second-wave feminists understood several decades ago through their use of consciousness-raising groups, we describe how we derived many benefits from using feminist memory work. The method invites deep reflection on the intersections between the personal and political and can be productive of insights about how people feel, not just think, about their experiences. A sense of solidarity can stem from this awareness amongst participants who have a chance to workshop and thus reinterpret their own stories and those of others, which can mean a growth in self-confidence and a reduction in self-blame.

read free here

Michell, D., Beddoe, L., Fraser, H., & Jarldorn, M. (2016). Solidarity and support: Feminist memory work focus groups with working-class women studying social science degrees in Australia. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 1-15. doi:10.1080/09518398.2016.1242804

See also:

Fraser, H., Michell, D., Beddoe, L., & Jarldorn, M. (2016). Working-class women study social science degrees: remembering enablers and detractors. Higher Education Research & Development, 35(4), 684-697. doi:10.1080/07294360.2015.1137885 Abstract 

Jarldorn, M., Beddoe, L., Fraser, H., & Michell, D. (2015). Planting a seed: Encouraging service users towards educational goals. Social Work Education, 34(8), 921-935. doi:10.1080/02615479.2015.1098607 Abstract 

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Understanding decision-making variability in child welfare – a current research project

Emily Keddell and Ian Hyslop 

Decision-making across the spectrum of child welfare services is to say the least, complicated. Studies time and again find that decisions to refer to statutory services, to accept notifications, to substantiate them, and to proceed to formal care proceedings, can have significant outcome variations, even if the family circumstances or level of harm are fairly similar. While no two families are exactly the same, the levels of variation can be significant. This is a problem, as children’s right to protection, and family rights to retain children in their care, should both be enforced at a consistent level or threshold.

Differences in outcomes have led to many attempts to theorise and understand why this occurs. There are two main findings from the ‘why’ research. The first is that it is not simply the individual decision-maker that controls decision outcomes – rather it is a range of interacting influences across the ecological spectrum that determine these. Secondly, while some influences on decisions, such as assessment tools, are obvious, there are many less obvious ones that need examination if decision variability is to be understood and reduced. Some of these less visible ones include the values and beliefs of practitioners, how family behaviour or abuse is interpreted, family responses, the presence of alternative resources such as preventive services, how decision-making heuristics develop via feedback, site-based organisational cultures, the impact of group or supervisory processes, the influence of biases, the expression of inequalities of class and ethnicity, and an often conflicted orientation or ideology of the nation state in regards to child welfare policy. Little research has been undertaken in Aotearoa New Zealand to date to examine which of these are most significant or how they interact in our context.

In order to attempt to grapple with this huge and overwhelming list of possible influences, we are running an exploratory research project to attempt to understand what is driving variability here. With this in mind, our study uses two methods to attempt to ‘get at’ the micro – meso aspects of decision making. The first method is the online questionnaire some of you will have seen. This phase will gather some basic data on to what extent variability exists by seeing how much perceptions of risk in response to the same case (a vignette) differ. It also asks questions relating to the interpretive processes relating to understandings of abuse and harm, knowledge bases, biases, ethical considerations, etc, and gathers some information about the meso context such as time constraints, other powerholders in the decision process, and the depth of information able to be gathered.

To extend the examination of meso factors, several sites will be selected in phase two, where we will be running focus groups and inviting people to be interviewed. This phase will be looking at how decisions are processed at different sites through decisions pathways. It will also seek to understand the cultural norms and practices at each site, and ask respondents about how they decide in ‘cusp’ cases – those that are difficult to decide about.

Using these two methods, together with a literature review incorporating the relevant macro aspects, we hope to produce useful baseline research into what contributes to decision variability. This knowledge can then be put into practice by working with relevant agencies to address the causes of variability – without introducing heavily prescribed or automated practice responses. Balancing practitioner discretion and creativity with the need to have a fair and equitable response to whanau in the child welfare system will be the aim at that point of the research project.

We hope this gives a good overview of the project – if you work for Child, Youth and Family  or a child and family service, Iwi social service or Cultural social service in Aotearoa New Zealand, we would love you to take part in the questionnaire phase of the study. You can take part in it here:


PS. This project has been approved by the University of Otago Ethics Committee, and the Ministry of Social Development Research Access Committee. The researchers are Emily Keddell at University of Otago, Ian Hyslop at the University of Auckland, and the research advisor is Shayne Walker at the University of Otago.

PPS. If you’re interested in the background literature, there’s an open access article available here:

Keddell, E. (2014). Current debates on variability in child welfare decision-making: A selected literature review. Social Sciences, 3(4), 916.

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