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Professional discretion in four different child welfare systems

The paper “A Cross-Country Comparison of Child Welfare Systems and Workers’ Responses to Children Appearing to be at Risk or in Need of Help” by Jill Berrick, Jonathan Dickens, Tarja Pösö and Marit Skivenes, explores professional discretionary decision making in child protection. Our study compares how frontline staff in four national child welfare systems and policy contexts – Finland, Norway, England and the USA (specifically, California) – respond to questions about a scenario of possible harm to children. The countries have different child welfare systems, something we expected would be reflected in the workers’ responses (n = 1027).

Our analysis showed differences and similarities between the systems, though often not in line with our expectations of the different child welfare systems. Findings also showed variation within the country samples. The study showed the complex interactions between: 1) individual and agency characteristics, 2) standardized decision-making systems and 3) professional discretion.

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Key messages to practitioners in social work:

  • Professional discretion differs.
  • Standardized and high threshold systems result in less variation between workers’ responses.
  • The traditional system categories (risk-, family- and service oriented) do not seem to capture the nuances of frontline decision-making.