Decision making in child protection practice
This research explores the decision making processes of individuals and groups engaged in child protection practice within social services departments in the UK. The emphasis of the research was to consider how the application of psychological theories and concepts might allow a descriptive and interpretative evaluation of decision processes in child protection practice. The research sought to elaborate upon much of previous social work literature in that it focused upon the processes of decision making rather than the outcomes for participants. Similarly it sought to elaborate upon literature in decision theory in that it focused upon real world, ongoing and naturalistic decision situations. The theoretical framework used in the research was an integrated model of decision making under conditions of risk proposed by Whyte (1989,1991). This model outlines circumstances under which individuals and groups may take decisions in the directions of risk or caution. The methodological approach was grounded in the principles of qualitative research. Drawing upon Forster (1994) and Yin (1989) documentary analysis was applied to case studies. The research considered documents in relation to two categories of child protection cases. Initially those where children who were already known to child protection practitioners had died, namely, child death inquiry reports. Ongoing cases within a local authority child protection department, where the outcomes and decision making were considered to be positive, were then analysed. The interpretation from the first stage of the research suggested that all the concepts outlined in Whyte's model could have explanatory value and that the deaths of children could be a consequence of the ways in which decisions are framed and which leave children in situations of risk. The second stage involved the analysis of documents in relation to eight ongoing cases within a local authority. The number of group meetings held in the eight cases was 38 and in 71% of these the operation of the certainty effect in the direction of risk was evident. In the remaining 39% there was evidence that the certainty effect operated in the direction of caution. Within the documents there was some evidence of group polarisation and groupthink. Resources were committed and escalated consistently in order to ensure the effectiveness of initial plans of action despite evidence that these were unsuccessful in terms of the overall well being of the children. The decisions were shown to be bounded by the 'objective' principles of the Children Act 1989 and Working Together (1991). However themes that emerged from the analysis of the cases suggest that there is a 'subjective' influence on decision processes. Evident within the analysis was a shared fundamental belief in keeping children with their mothers. Both these objective and subjective influences suggest that almost inevitably decision making in child protection practice will be driven in directions that result in courses of action that involve potential and actual risks for children. The findings emphasise how an explicit recognition of the multifaceted nature of decision making can assist in more reflective practice. The ways in which national and local policy impacts upon decision processes, at the level of the individual and groups, need to be monitored in order that the needs of children in situations that involve risk remain paramount.