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.


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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