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:

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


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s