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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Why are changes made in child protection?

I was intrigued by an article published recently in the journal, Australian Social Work. It asked the question - Driving child protection reform: Evidence or Ideology? The short answer is that, in this study of one change process, it was ideology. The article looked at the introduction of Structured Decision Making (SDM) in Queensland. The changes were made in response to significant scrutiny through public inquiry. Quoting Nigel Parton from the UK, the author, Philip Gillingham notes that change is often driven through "political imperatives to respond to the deaths of children at the hands of their parents" (p.1).

Gillingham also notes that change often leads to increased bureaucracy, manageralism, technical fixing as opposed to enhancing the skills that make social work effective. These approaches in response to public inquiry create a more formulaic approach to the work which reduces the relationship based effectiveness of our work. It creates more distance, more processes to be completed and checklists to manage as opposed to direct time with the client. Eileen Munro, also from the UK, earlier noted that social workers are spending less time with child protection clients and more time on the administrative tasks.

What really struck me, though, was the failure of the process in this case. On p. 6 of the article, Gillingham notes that the goal of the reforms in Queensland was to respond to the need for "a suite of professional practices and decision tools to help regulate, standardize and record the frontline decisions taken by Child Safety Officers" (quoting Forster, 2004). But Gillingham's research found "The SDM tools had had no discernible impact on the promotion of consistency in decision-making." He adds,. "The findings that SDM tools were not used to assist decision-making and did not promote consistency suggest that neither were they used to target the children most in need" (p. 8).

SDM has been used effectively elsewhere according to other reports. This article helps remind us that introducing change requires careful thought on how to support the real work of child protection. Other research has shown that when you allow workers to build relationships with clients where clients can feel heard, respected and seen for the own circumstances, you end up with better outcomes. Tools such as SDM should not be used to replace that but need to be part of a process that enhances what clients need. Those driving change feel that social workers make poor decisions and they need these structured tools in order to solve that. Gillingham's article notes, as has been seen in other research, that workers would go back and fit the data into SDM in order to support the decision they had already made - they were meeting the bureaucratic needs.

Reference: Gillingham, P. (2014).Driving child protection reform: Evidence or ideology? Australian Social Work, online first 

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