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Processes of Discernment when Considering Issues of Neglect in Child Protection Practice



The researchers describe a study conducted to explore how child protection practitioners negotiate their way through ambiguous and contradictory evidence when working with families under a suspicion of neglect. In depth interviews were conducted in order to understand the processes of discernment that practitioners used to determine how to proceed. Through our practitioners’ practice narratives, we provide a glimpse into the complex relationship between discernment, identity and contexts where neglect is a concern. Implications for training, education, and practice are included.
Processes of Discernment when Considering Issues
of Neglect in Child Protection Practice
Marie L. Hoskins Jennifer White
Published online: 27 October 2009
!Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009
Abstract The researchers describe a study conducted to explore how child protection
practitioners negotiate their way through ambiguous and contradictory evidence when
working with families under a suspicion of neglect. In depth interviews were conducted in
order to understand the processes of discernment that practitioners used to determine how
to proceed. Through our practitioners’ practice narratives, we provide a glimpse into the
complex relationship between discernment, identity and contexts where neglect is a con-
cern. Implications for training, education, and practice are included.
Keywords Narratives !Identity !Child protection !Practice !Discernment !
Neglect !Education
In most parts of the world, the media frequently publish child welfare decisions made by
those mandated to protect children. Consider, for example, a recent report in an Australian
The Australian reported yesterday on the case of a two year old girl and her baby
brother, removed from the care of their parents, ostensibly because they sometimes
smoked cannabis. There was no evidence of abuse or neglect. After 13 weeks in
foster care, a New South Wales Supreme Court judgeordered the children be
returned to their parents, saying the more likely reason for their removal was that the
mother had argued with welfare officers. The judge described the case as an abuse of
power. (Overington 2009, p. 11)
There is nothing particularly remarkable about the media coverage of this case. These
kinds of reports appear in newspapers all over the world on a regular basis. What is
remarkable is that the kinds of challenges that underlie cases like the one reported above
M. L. Hoskins (&)!J. White
School of Child and Youth Care, University of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada
Child Youth Care Forum (2010) 39:27–45
DOI 10.1007/s10566-009-9089-3
are part of the everyday practice of those mandated to protect children. Understandably,
child welfare practice is complex and difficult work that raises concerns about state
intrusion into family life, the role of the child protection worker, workers’ interpretation of
and relationships to various impinging discourses (such as institutional, therapeutic, rela-
tional and legal) and ultimately, how to determine what is real (the truth of the situation)
and the good (how one should act). With these complexities in mind, a team of researchers
in the School of Child and Youth Care at the University of Victoria designed a study to
learn more about how child protection workers conceptualize their practices and the kinds
of knowledges (formal and informal) they rely onto make certain kinds of decisions. What
we were particularly curious about was how these dynamics occurred in situations like the
one described in the Australian Press where neglect was the primary concern and not
obvious instances of child abuse. Needless to say, it is when the evidence is murky, ill
formed, and subtle that the challenge to make decisions can be particularly daunting.
Overview of Relevant Literature
Everyday practice in child protection is often characterized in the research literature as
having high levels of uncertainty and ambiguity. Parton (2003) said it clearly when he
stated that: ‘‘risk, uncertainty and reflexivity increasingly characterize the present, such
that more and more social conflicts can be seen to have no easy and unambiguous solu-
tions’’ (p. 1). Along similar lines, de Boer and Coady (2007) emphasized that the practice
of child protection is fraught with contradictions, paradoxes, and ethical dilemmas. Adding
to these kinds of uncertainties is the intrusion of the media and public consciousness into
professional practice which further contributes to heightened levels of personal and pro-
fessional anxiety (see for example, Bell 1999; Clifford 2002; Fargion 2006; Parton 2003,
2007; Parton and O’Bryne 2000).
We found it reassuring that many theorists acknowledge such challenges but from our
perspective, also found limited attention paid to those ambiguous ‘‘grey areas’’ of practice
that typify cases of child neglect. We also found that there was a significant gap in the
literature when the dynamic processes of identity construction, discernment, and neglect
were considered. Further, although there are several researchers who acknowledge that this
type of practice is extremely challenging, few have conducted qualitative research that
aims to document how personal and professional identities influence the way practitioners
actually make sense of these practice challenges. This is particularly problematic because
not only do practitioners need to determine how to assess their clients in specific contexts,
but they also need to construct how they want to work with families where neglect has been
raised as a concern. Parton’s (2003) work was one of the few that we found that dem-
onstrated a constructively oriented approach to understanding child protection practice that
closely resembles the ways in which we began to weave these dynamic processes together.
Because interest in subjectivity (identity) and discernment crosses many other intel-
lectual traditions and scholarly investigations we felt that a review of the literature for this
study required us to search beyond the boundaries of any one single professional group or
discipline. Specifically, given that child protection practitioners are professionally prepared
for their roles through a variety of disciplines and professional schools (i.e. not just Schools
of Social Work), as we discuss below, it was necessary for us to understand broad phe-
nomena such as clinical judgment, ethical decision making, reflective practice, praxis and
identity construction that cut across many professions.
When it came to conceptualizing the process of reflective practice, we were influenced
by Schon’s (1983) foundational and extensive work that argues that reflection in action
28 Child Youth Care Forum (2010) 39:27–45
rarely occurs but that reflection on action can lead to valuable insights. Polanyi’s (1966)
work was also instrumental in helping to revisit the intuitive and tacit aspects of knowing
that shape understanding sometimes unknowingly. Fook et al. (2006) and her colleagues’
efforts to theorize more deeply about the place of critical reflection in health and social
care were also highly relevant to our study. Conceptualizing subjectivity or identity
prompted us to revisit Mahoney’s (1991,2003) groundbreaking work on the self of the
practitioner, constructivist notions of self identity, and historical and contemporary
(postmodern) theories of intersubjectivity. We wholeheartedly agree with Mahoney (1996)
who writes: ‘‘relatedly, the experience of personal identity—the lifespan project of self—is
viewed as inseparable from the interpersonal realm’’ (p. 131), and elaborating further he
posits that ‘‘our styles of knowing and our constructions of reality are not things we have in
the sense of possessions, but processes we live’’ (p. 133). It was these processes that piqued
our research interests.
Compatible with Mahoney’s constructivist orientation is Gergen’s (1994,2000) per-
spective that emphasizes the ongoing negotiation of a kind of interrelatedness that asks
whose interests are being served and to what end? Postmodern conceptualizations of the
self are particularly relevant to our study because of their emphasis on multiplicity, self in
context/relation, fluidity, and constant states of change and development (see for example,
Bruner 1986; Cushman 1990; Mahoney 2003; Polkinghorne 1988). Rather than construing
a fixed concept of identity we were interested in understanding the intersections between
context and personal and professional identities.
Initially we relied on the term, decision making to describe how practitioners determine
the ‘‘truth’’ of the situation and how to act accordingly.But decision making did not
adequately capture the complex process of decision-making in practice for us. Instead, we
have chosen the term discernment, as a more fitting kind of description. We believe this
term has utility and value in the context of attempting to understand our participants’
experiences and what is ultimately required when our practitioners have to interpret
ambiguous and hard-to-read moments and situations. Although there are related terms
found in the professional literature such as critical reflection, reflexivity, critical thinking,
praxis, and clinical decision-making, there are subtle yet important distinctions that we
want to highlight.
For example, philosopher Nussbaum (1990) argued that discernment is a different and
special kind of perception. Her following point resonated with what our participants told
us. She wrote that ‘‘perception is a process of loving conversation between rules and
concrete responses, general conceptions and unique cases, in which the general articulates
the particular and is in turn further articulated by it’’ (p. 95). It is this movement from the
parts to the whole, that is, the local to the general, that our participants explained and
exemplified so well. This zooming into the minute details such as checking for food in the
cupboard, or assessing cleanliness and then panning back to discern parental care and
attention within a context of provincial legislation, all while attempting to understand
another’s perspective in a compassionate way, requires a highly sophisticated kind of
discernment. Through our participants’ stories we have been provided a brief but revealing
perspective on how processes of discernment unfold in light of various situations sur-
rounding the issue of neglect.
Further, Nussbaum’s description of a ‘‘loving conversation between rules and concrete
responses’’ seemed to capture how our participants worked with policies and mandates
while connecting as human beings. In exploring the intersections between discernment,
identity, and context, and drawing on the relevant literature cited above, we summarize our
assumptions as follows.
Child Youth Care Forum (2010) 39:27–45 29
Discernment, we argue, is a particular kind of perception that (a) involves a focused
attention to context that requires one to be deeply engaged, (b) is a relational process, (c) is
not an any ‘‘anything goes’’ approach to knowing (d) is value laden, not neutral, and
(e) employs multiple ways of knowing for determining the ‘truth’’ of a situation including
feeling, intuition, rational thought, and embodied knowing.
When it comes to context—in our case, situations of possible neglect—we contend that
there are unique kinds of challenges that warrant closer inspection, not only in term of legal
mandates but in relation to issues of professional identity and relational practice. Identities
are not fixed and static but are fluid processes that require individuals to negotiate meanings
(often in narrative form) in relation to others. Such meanings and interpretations of experi-
ence are socially embedded, politically influenced, culturally shaped, and contextually based.
Rationale for the Study
We were motivated to understand the dynamic processes of discernment, identity, and
neglect for three main reasons. First, all of us on the research team prepare students to work
in a variety of contexts related to children, youth and families. Traditionally only social
work graduates have been hired for child protection positions, however this is no longer the
case, particularly in Canada. For example, Schools of Child and Youth Care, Departments
of Psychology and Counseling Psychology are receiving increasing numbers of requests
from prospective employers, including government ministries, to prepare students to work
in the area of child protection. In response to this increasing demand for skilled and
knowledgeable child protection practitioners, the School of Child and Youth Care at the
University of Victoria has added a cluster of courses to constitute what we now call a child
protection stream. Given the increasing demand and the need to make our curriculum as
relevant as possible, we are making concerted efforts to deepen our understanding of the
complexities of child protection practice when neglect is an issue. Ultimately we anticipate
that this research will inform our curriculum decisions, and, in the end, improve practice
for those working in the area of child protection.
A second reason for doing this research was to attempt to address some of the diffi-
culties cited in the research on practice. Practitioner anxiety over decision making pro-
cesses has been identified as something that needs to be addressed, and from our
conversations with those working in the field, stress and burnout are often mentioned as the
primary reason for leaving the field. Practitioners told us that they often feel isolated and
fearful of revealing their uncertainty despite years of front line experience. All of our
participants spoke about the difficulty they had in being open about their practice, espe-
cially when they might be perceived as inexperienced and/or unprofessional. By bringing
practice stories to life we hope that practitioners may find solace from reading their
colleagues’ accounts of difficulties. When we presented our findings at a recent conference,
practitioners told us that we had put words to some of their difficulties and wished they had
more opportunities to learn from each other. Given the difficulties that many human
service ministries have in recruitment and retention of front line practitioners, this research
may help to foster a more open and collaborative practice culture.
And finally, given the complexity of the work and the challenge of determining what to
do in the kinds of situations we became aware of, we believe it is critical that we develop
the most viable approaches to practice. Whether one wishes to think of ‘‘best practices’’ or
‘evidence based practice,’’ we feel compelled to engage in ongoing research to better serve
children, youth and families. In order to address these identified issues, we realized that we
needed to try to better understand the everyday practice of those who work in the field.
30 Child Youth Care Forum (2010) 39:27–45
Practitioners’ reflections on their experiences, like the ones we present here, have tre-
mendous potential to illuminate what is often concealed to researchers, policy makers,
educators, and practitioners.
Situating the Study Within Qualitative Methodologies
Constructively oriented understandings of human experience led us to qualitative, inter-
pretive methodologies, and in particular to narrative approaches in order to understand
processes of meaning making in action. Our research methodology is strongly influenced
by descriptive, narrative methodologies (see for example, Clandinin and Connelly 2000;
Denzin 1997; Hoskins 2000,2001,2002; Josselson 1996; Polkinghorne 1983; Wolcott
1994) that rely on thick descriptions of experience as told by participants. The purpose of
narrative research is to explore the meaning life events hold and how people ultimately
understand situations, others and themselves (Polkinghorne 1988,2007). Because quali-
tative is more concerned with meaning than facticity, quantitative measures of reliability
and validity are not the most appropriate ways of evaluating the research. Readers and
those with similar experiences such as the practitioners in our study assess the value and
relevance of the accounts. Trustworthiness and authenticity become ‘‘viable stances on the
question of validity and reliability’’ (Creswell 1994, p. 158). Working with participant
stories provides an up close and personal glimpse into the lived experience of everyday
practice that other kinds of methodologies cannot provide. Stories also have an evaluative
component so that in listening to and analyzing stories we gain entry into how a practi-
tioner’s value orientations shape decisions. Following recommendations by theorists in the
field of qualitative, narrative research mentioned above, we have attempted to present our
stories in a holistic form. It is important to note that in this kind of research we are not
attempting to generalize to all practitioners but rather to illuminate a process of making
sense of dilemmas in practice when issues of neglect are present. Illumination, resonance,
credibility, and trustworthiness become the markers of validity as does the notion of
pragmatic validity (Lather 1993) where the utility of the research is evaluated.
Recruitment of participants was done through six regional child protection offices in two
cities in British Columbia. Supervisors let their staff know that if they wanted to participate
they could contact the research team directly. Our participants consisted of seven experienced
practitioners who were interviewed 2–3 times for approximately 90 min. Years of child
protection experience ranged from 3 to 12 years. It is important to note that training and
educational backgrounds varied with some holding a BSW or an MSW, an MA in Educational
Psychology, a BA in Education, and a BA in Child and Youth Care. All of our participants had
gone through a variety of training and mentoring programs when they were first hired.
We anticipated that much could be learned by revisiting unresolved practice experiences
and wanted to explore the complexities of such difficulties. Each practitioner was asked
Child Youth Care Forum (2010) 39:27–45 31
to reflect on various practice experiences and to choose one that remained particularly
troublesome. The interview began by asking: When you reflect on your practice experi-
ences, particularly when it comes to situations that concern neglect, can you think of a case
that was particularly challenging, or one that may not be fully resolved for you? What
followed were questions that could elicit a full description, explanation, and interpretation
of the event. Perhaps not surprising, we found that all of our participants were able to come
up with a dilemma that had unresolved issues, making practice stories readily available for
our analysis.
Measures: Analytic Methods for Working with the Data
All of the interviews were conducted by three members of the research team, were taped
and transcribed verbatim and were subsequently read for meaning units, codes, symbols,
metaphors, categories and themes. We relied on traditional qualitative methods of color
coding, generating charts, and setting up reading guides in order to immerse ourselves in
the data.
There were several strategies used to understand the depth of the transcripts and the
meanings that participants were sharing with us. While reading and interpreting the
accounts or data, we began with the micro or particular aspects of the practitioners’
reflection on their experience. Once the concrete details were documented, we then
attempted to gain a more holistic understanding by reading the transcripts for the overall
narrative structure. In narrative research, parts have to be understood within the whole and
from this perspective, ‘‘just as word choice, sentence structure and thematic subplots are
understood within a larger narrative, the interpretation of an overall story is derived from
the intersection of meaning and nuance’’ (Nakkula and Ravitch 1998, p. 23).
Once this process of moving back and forth and immersing ourselves in the data was
done, we also read the transcripts metaphorically trying to gain a sense of the subjectivity
of the practitioner and how this affected some of the ways his or her practice was
described. In other words, we attempted to understand the practitioners’ sense of self (both
personal and professional) in relation to how they determined what was going on within the
family. We were not attempting to determine the ‘‘truth’’ of the story, but rather were more
interested in understanding how practitioners made sense of their experience and how the
telling of the story supported or contradicted their personal and professional identities
(Churchill 2000).
We used specific questions as we read the transcripts. For example, when a practitioner
discussed how the task of having to be an ‘‘investigator’’ figured prominently in her work,
we wanted to know more about how the use of detective kinds of discourses impacted her
process of discernment. How did she negotiate her way through being in relationship with
her client and having to take an authoritative stance? What cues, information, and ‘‘facts’
did she bring to the foreground and what details were relegated to the background? How
did the adoption of the role or script affect what was considered to be most important
regarding the family and how did she position herself in relation the discourses associated
with such a role? What kinds of formal theories (if any) came to the forefront? Did she rely
on intuitive, procedural, or other kinds of knowing? And ultimately, what were practi-
tioners’ understandings of their own processes of discernment in practice when there was a
suspicion of neglect? It is important to note that questions in narrative research cannot be
determined a priori but need to be created in response to what the participant describes.
This kind of interviewing is emergent and relational in that it requires a deep commitment
to process and meaning-making in the moment (see for example, Kvale 1996).
32 Child Youth Care Forum (2010) 39:27–45
In order to validate our emerging themes and analysis we engaged in several kinds of
member checks such as discussions with practitioners in the field. Our entire research team
has extensive practice experience, so research meetings were routinely held to review our
emerging interpretations. We also had the added bonus of having current Ministry of
Children and Family Development employees on our team who had extensive experience
in interpreting policies related to child neglect. And finally, with this kind of methodology,
it is also important to continually consult the research literature to support various themes
that emerge from the data. All of these ways of triangulating or substantiating the data
helped to deepen our understanding.
Practitioner Accounts of Practice Dilemmas
Due to space limitations, we cannot present all of our participant stories in their entirety,
nor can we include all of the information from all interviews without merely providing a
cursory overview. Instead, we have chosen to use three practitioner accounts as our pri-
mary exemplars. This approach is consistent with narratively oriented theorists mentioned
above who argue for more in depth, descriptive data that sheds light on a particular event or
situation. Depth is the goal, not breadth. In our study, the strategic use of exemplars meant
that certain participant data was positioned in the foreground and other data became
relegated to the background. Featured examples include a combination of the practitioners’
recollections of experience, their understanding of their clients, and their current reflections
as they relate the story to the researcher. Just as in everyday conversations, at times our
practitioners take on the voice of the client; at other times, they shift their stories to reflect
what they remember as significant, and how they see the situation now from this new
vantage point. For the most part, we have relied on direct quotes to weave together our
descriptions of their practice deliberations.
Discerning the Primary Concern: Ken’s Practice Story
Ken, who has been a child protection worker for several years, recalled a fairly recent
situation that still bothered him in many ways. Launching quickly into his experience he
began by describing how he gently knocked on the door of what was visibly a low income
basement suite in the Vancouver Eastside. The mother, who was the sole parent for her
10 year old daughter, he described to us, was about to find out that she was under
investigation for suspicion of neglect. He enthusiastically tells the researcher that he
remembers being fairly confident that this meeting would go well given that many of them
do. After all, he explained, he’s been doing this kind of work for 12 years, much longer
than most child protection workers. Providing some background information, he continues
with the story.
A concerned neighbor made the initial phone call, he explained, alerting the Ministry of
Children and Family Development that things may not be going too well at home. The
relationship between the mother and daughter is ‘‘very odd’’ the neighbor had reported.
According to information provided by this neighbor, the girl did not attend school, stays up
well after midnight, and seems overly attached to her mother who appears to be very
strange. More troubling details will soon unfold, but for now, these were what Ken
remembered were the neighbor’s main concerns. Ken begins to tell the story as if it was
Child Youth Care Forum (2010) 39:27–45 33
a current event, describing his approach in proactive ways. Bringing the situation to life he
describes the following scene.
Once inside, I quickly surveyed the living conditions. I marched into kitchen cup-
boards, searching for the most obvious thing—food. What I found were cans of
beans, corn, and peas, some cereal boxes, and a few boxes of crackers, all the while I
had to collect evidence of adequate or inadequate parenting.
In this case, he explains, given the mother was a single parent, he searched for evidence
of ‘‘good’’ mothering. Scanning the almost barren suite, he explained how he began to
conduct a mental checklist: any dirty dishes [gestures a checking motion], unmade beds
[check], broken glass on the floor [check], dirt, dust, or leftover food [three checks].
Combined, all of these check points can be used as indicators of a possible lack of care,
he explains to the researcher. As he continued with his mental checklist, he also described
how he had to keep an eye on the mother who clearly did not like what was happening.
Even in such a preliminary meeting Ken has had to rely on multiple sources of knowledge
in order to assess the situation. His years of experience were guiding him to a certain
extent, but as he also pointed out, every situation is unique and he has to pay very careful
attention. There are no templates, he tells the researcher, for working with the complexities
of family experience. He vividly remembers the mother’s reactions and her disdain for him
in his role as a child protection worker intruding into her life. Relating her frustration, he
takes on the tone of her lament: ‘‘Who could have called? Who is watching me that
closely? What do they think I’ve done wrong this time?’’ Ken, in his casual, friendly style,
tells us that he remembered pulling up a chair at the kitchen table, and how he slowly and
sensitively tried to make the translation from the initial reported concern into words that
might be more acceptable to the mother.
‘There’s apparently too much interference in the girls’ life,’’ he explains to her. He also
explains that there’s not enough freedom, and not enough interaction with others, espe-
cially because the girl does not attend school. But in his mind, he’s considering that
perhaps another concern is that the daughter, who he explained to us had disappeared to
another room, might be a little underweight. He carefully lays out these allegations on the
table, like a lunch time meal, a little of this and a little of that, all very tentative—all bits
and pieces of a story that will be conveyed as a narrative of care or one of neglect. These
are the really difficult cases, he tells the researchers. There is something there, he knows it,
but it’s really hard to grasp. Connecting with the mother is critical but a lot of times when
you’re a Ministry worker, he explains, the first thing people think is you’re going to take
their kids away and in many ways, you’re threatening to them. He clarifies:
So we see a lot of really scared people. People start crying before you even start
talking to them. You know, you knock on their door and they’re like this [shows the
researchers an anxious expression with both hands on his cheeks] and then you sit
down and they’ll say ‘‘excuse me’’ and they’ll take out their Kleenex and they’ll start
crying before you’ve even broached the subject. Your identity as a protection worker
walks in the door before you.
No tears were shed in this case, he remembers, only a quiet, determined resistance to
him being there. The background information for this case was sparse. Apart from the
initial phone call, a physician also wrote a brief note saying that the woman was in his
words, ‘‘handicapped.’’ But Ken knew intuitively there was something else going on.
Something more troubling. She’s a very devout Christian. Perhaps a concern? Perhaps not.
But there’s more. The mother explains that her daughter is home schooled. When asked
34 Child Youth Care Forum (2010) 39:27–45
about the home schooling, he said there was an urgency to her voice. Taking on her frantic
tone, he remembers how upset she was and tries to take on her anxiety.
‘There’s no time! There’s no time for normal school because we’re on a very important
religious mission! There is absolutely no room for any outside interference that might deter
us from our path!’’ The tone in his voice as he relates this part of the story to us reveals his
growing concern, now as he relates the story and then, as he remembers the story from an
increasingly frustrated mother.
Ken explained to us that after the initial meeting he returned to the office and contacted
the home schooling office. According to the file, there had been no recent contact with this
mother and daughter. They registered, a voice on the other end of the phone explained, but
there had been no contact for about a year. This was definitely a problem. He began to
wonder about other things: What about financial support? How does this mother make a
living he wonders? More calls and more hunches needed to be pursued. He soon dis-
covered that she lived on nothing, literally nothing, he firmly stated to us. In a surprised
tone he further clarifies to us: ‘‘Oh, she gets a child tax benefit which is around $200 or
$225 something a month and then she has an ex-spouse who occasionally sends her
money.’’ Ken knew the ex-spouse had no money because he managed to talk to him. He
tells us that he now lives in Newfoundland. ‘‘He had a near death accident on a job so he
can’t work full-time,’’ he states, ‘‘he only works when he can and then he sends a few
dollars.’’ Still more details to clarify
In the end, the mom wanted nothing to do with me, he admitted with a certain amount of
resignation and defeat in his voice. In his role as a child protection worker, he sees himself
as a valuable advocate, an ally of those who are marginalized, like this woman, and in his
advocacy role he has certain tasks to do. In this case, with this woman, he was not able to
do much. In many ways, he also explained to us that he identifies himself more with the
legal side of the work and tends to stay away from the therapeutic aspects. In his mind, he’s
clearly not a counselor, or therapist, and believes he does not have the skills or training to
be very good in such roles. During the time on this case, Ken thought it was relatively easy.
He would get her on income assistance and then be able to do a ‘‘permanent disability
designation’’ because he believed she was a perfect candidate. She could never work. You
know, he explained to us, ‘‘she’s . [he pauses, seemingly trying to weigh his words]
even as a retail clerk she’d be out there talking about God and trying to convert people.’
But surprisingly she refused to go along with his plan, so he was left with no other
choice. You cannot force someone to take assistance, he explained, but I would not give up
on the other because I wanted to know her daughter was doing all right. He explains.
‘Oh by the way, I have nothing against home schooling. Most home schooled kids
have their parents so involved I think they could even get a better education. But this
kid wasn’t doing anything. And the mum was telling really weird stories about the com-
puter and saying the principal of the home schooling was sending her e-mails and was
screwing her computer up. Of course, he had nothing to do with it. So after all of this I felt I
had no other choice—I took her to family court and I got a supervision order and trans-
ferred it to the Family Service Team. They made a referral for a Psych assessment of the
child. I thought the child was extremely shy but she seemed of average intelligence to me. I
was quite confident that if she had some training she’d do well at school. Well, she was
assessed and ended up doing really poorly. She was years and years behind. And they
actually thought she might be disabled to some extent herself. And anyways, that’s the kind
of neglect case that we struggle with. There’s a vagueness to it all and it can be very
Child Youth Care Forum (2010) 39:27–45 35
So how do you make sense of the fact that being an advocate for her did not work in this
case, the researcher asks? ‘‘I can’t make sense of it. I think no offense to her, but I think
it’s crazy. I don’t mean that in any clinical way. Why would someone turn their back on a
thousand dollars a month—it’s nuts. So she goes to food banks, lives on minimal assis-
tance, and the odd $100 from Newfoundland. It doesn’t make any sense to me at all. You
know the Ministry has a note the girl’s actually well built. She’s not emaciated at all.
She’s not even slim so I guess they cannot make a thing about it. She has shelter and she
has food so
As one can see from this description of Ken’s practice experience, there is a myriad of
details that need to be sorted, categorized, evaluated and eventually pieced together into a
semblance of a coherent story. This particular account of a practice story reveals the
complexities that make the issue of neglect so difficult to determine. As Ken recounted his
series of hunches and ways of knowing, it became evident that how these details are
prioritized and sorted depends on one’s orientation to various influences such as institu-
tional, therapeutic, relational, and legal kinds of discourses (Sinclair 2005). Such dis-
courses are not necessarily discrete and separate from each other. As you will read from
other participants, they merge and blend depending on the circumstances, and how the
practitioner interprets the evidence. What counts as the most plausible truth, in other
words, what counts as evidence, and how one engages in the actual practice of child
welfare work also comes into play. Embedded within these domains of knowledge and
practice, are several value laden questions that child protection workers like Ken have to
consider. Should mothers who may have a mental illness be left to raise their children
alone? Common sense might suggest that this is not a healthy environment for a child, but
according to what criteria of ‘‘healthy?’’ What can actually be done? If this mother was
struggling with a disability or living with the effects of a mental illness, should she be able
to continue being a sole parent? Who, in our society, can provide the kind of support she
needs? What are those needs if they are not financial? Should this mother be forced to
receive help? Who gets to decide? Ultimately, what kinds of options did Ken have for
making sure the girl was safe? Whose notion of ‘‘safe’’ gets to prevail? What needs to
change and how can he facilitate this change? What kind of problem is this? Given this
may be a case of neglect, not abuse, are these moral, ethical, financial, or legal concerns?
Throughout our analysis of the interviews it became apparent to us that decisions are
nested within several assumptions and orientations to the work. For example, Ken’s
decisions were closely linked to how he viewed himself as a professional, which in his case
was as an advocate. In fact, he explains that all of his practice strategies fit within an
advocacy framework. This advocacy image framed his capacity to discern when and how
to take action and ultimately provided structure, form, and moral themes to his narratives.
For the most part, the actions he described to us were congruent with how he views himself
in this function and fit with his overall advocacy narrative. Similarly, he explained that
adopting this kind of subjectivity or ontology is not merely a professional way of being; in
his personal life he tends to be the same kind of ‘‘take charge’’ person.
As mentioned in our introduction, in the midst of vague and hard to read evidence often
found in child protection work, we wanted to understand how practitioners made sense of
what they perceived may be going on and how they acted in response. In Ken’s case, he
articulated the way in which he cleared the path for not just a procedural decision but also
an ethical one. According to him, doing something about the mother’s mental state was
beyond the boundaries of his position, and perhaps more to the point, beyond how he
identified himself in this work. But by determining possible ways the child could be
protected from further neglect or possible psychological harm, there was something he
36 Child Youth Care Forum (2010) 39:27–45
could advocate for. This move, for him, was an effort to achieve the greater good, that is, to
protect the child from harm or neglect.
Despite this seemingly coherent account of a practice experience, and a clear
description of how he views himself as a child protection practitioner, there remains a
certain doubt in his voice. He reveals to the researcher some of his lingering questions.
Was he imagining things that may not have been there? Did he do the best thing for the
daughter? What else might have been done? Who is looking out for the child now?
Constituting Subjectivities in Relation to Others: Olivia’s Story
Olivia, a practitioner who has been doing child protection work for about 3 years, is a
young mother herself, so when she goes out to do the customary ‘knock on the door’ she is
always conscious of how she might feel if the same thing happened to her. She clarifies
what she means by saying: ‘‘I can’t imagine anything worse. Can you imagine what that
would be like to be sitting in your home and have some stranger ask if she can come in
because a neighbor or someone has made a phone call?’
Olivia tells the researcher that she thinks of herself as very relational in her approach to
the work and often uses what she refers to as an intuitive way of knowing to try to discern
what is going on. When asked how she knows whether or not there is adequate care in the
home she explains:
Well, for me it’s really just my gut. I mean there’s not really any science to it. It’s
just sort of you know usually it’s a matter of how I feel a parent is talking
about the child or interacting with the child. And you just get a sense from that
whether they’re around oror whether they’re there or not. Especially if the parent
is speaking negatively about their child or that they don’t care or are not really
able to interact with the child you just sort of react when you see it and then you
sense it in the child too.
As you can see from this excerpt full of pauses, there is some hesitation when it comes
to explaining how she knows. Feeling, sensing, intuiting, all come into play as she attempts
to discern whether or not neglect is present. Interestingly, this practitioner had just been
exposed to ideas found within attachment theory, so she was attempting to use this theory
to assess a current client’s relationship with her child. Although the theory had provided a
lens, it was more complicated for her than merely laying a framework onto a mother-
daughter relationship.
Olivia’s identity as a child protection practitioner is primarily shaped by her assumption
that she needs to really connect and have a relationship with the mother in order for change
to occur. She explains that change hardly ever occurs when it is mandated by some one
else. In the interview, she admits that if she believes she can influence the mother to make
some changes, she will often keep the file open longer than recommended by the Ministry.
Her team leader also seems to support this practice suggesting that the needs of the mother
and child take precedence over certain policies and procedures. Could she imagine taking a
different approach towards the work, the researcher asks?
Olivia responds by saying that she recently heard of a program in California where there
was a move to clearly separate the investigative part of the work from more therapeutic
approaches by having someone like a police officer do the investigation. This, for her, was
both appealing in some ways, and problematic in other ways. For her, in order to assess,
you need to really know the parent, to have a relationship. This would not happen if
investigations were delegated to policing kinds of services. Olivia seemed to reject the
Child Youth Care Forum (2010) 39:27–45 37
narrow investigative role that often permeates her position and liked to think of herself in
more therapeutic ways. When asked how she knows that she is perceived in this way by her
clients, she described the kinds of relational things they do together, such as going to
appointments, going for walks, and just sitting at the kitchen table in her client’s apartment.
All of the issues and descriptions provided by Olivia were organized around the theme of
care and relationship indicating that she constituted her professional identity from this
orientation. For her, the relationship was at the centre of her work.
Given how Olivia chooses to construct an identity for herself, her process of discerning
what is going on within a family is understandably relational and compassionate. In order
to know, to be able to make informed decisions, she needs to be connected to the mother or
parent in a way that allows for a different kind of seeing, one that is much closer than
others may feel is appropriate for a child protection role. Some of our participants viewed
the therapeutic side of the work beyond their mandate, whereas as others saw the inter-
sections between the legislative and the relational aspects as intertwined and impossible to
Multiplicity and Self in Relation to Other: Jane’s Story
Constructing a professional identity does not mean that singular models of subjectivity are
transposed onto experiences with clients. Discerning how to proceed is much more holistic,
non-linear and embodied. Further, constructing how to be with others arises in moment to
moment interactions, and such constructions are constantly revised according to context.
Although some of our participants had clear ideas and preferences when describing their
roles, often these roles were revised when emotions became intensified. Scripting one’s
identity is a more fluid, evolving, and ambiguous process than we may have predicted at
the beginning of our research.
In contrast to the practitioners above, Jane has a slightly different orientation to her
practice than some of the others. Of all of our participants, she appeared to be the most
confident in light of how she wanted construct her identity as a child protection worker.
Using terms like hunting,mining, and digging, her work was similar to what might be
found in detective work.
Jane began her first interview by describing how she thinks of herself as an investigative
kind of child protection practitioner, and in keeping with such an identity, discussed how
she needs to tease apart certain details of the overall story being told by the parents.
Towards the end of the first interview she even plays with the idea of being a Colombo like
figure, pretending to be naı
¨ve and slightly tentative, yet seemingly doing very good
investigative work. While she acknowledges that some parents are difficult to connect
with, barriers have to be ‘‘broken down’’ and certain information is needed. She explains:
‘They (the parents) pay a lot of attention to what they’re saying, so when they do come and
see you it’s like [long pause] it’s like they’re verbalizing something but it might not be
what they’re actually meaning.’
According to this practitioner, parents’ words cannot be taken at face value, in fact it is
important to sift through layers of evidence, and possible layers of deception as well. This
peeling back, mining, exploring, following hunches, and synthesizing information suggests
a less relational stance than might be thought of in other helping professions; instead, it is
characterized by an overarching metaphor of investigative,detective work. As researchers
we asked ourselves: Can the two metaphors co-exist? Is it possible to be both caring and
trusting, and at the same time, suspicious and doubtful? Jane’s description of practice,
illustrates that identities can be constructed from multiple sources and call upon different
38 Child Youth Care Forum (2010) 39:27–45
practice discourses (Sinclair 2005). When asked by the interviewer if she sees herself more
as a detective than a therapist, she responds that she’s a detective who merely uses
counseling skills. Being a counselor does not figure prominently in her sense of her
professional identity and it becomes increasingly obvious that she actually prefers the idea
of detective work.
But there is a surprising twist to her seemingly cohesive detective narrative. When
describing a particularly tragic case, Jane explains that she tried an experiment. With the
mother she tried to avoid connecting with her and to just do the work. In essence, she
attempted to be disengaged. But this distant stance did not actually work for long and
before she knew it she was connecting with a mom who had been using drugs while she
was pregnant. She explains.
So of course, we connect, we work through the anger, we work through the things
she needs to do, we work through the bullshit, we work through the days when she
came in high and I would deny her access because I would check her to make sure
that she looks, you know, sober.
Further complicating what could appear to be a strong singular identity was her
description in the second interview where she described that she was thinking of facili-
tating a group for women who experienced violence. ‘‘But it wouldn’t be therapy, she
insists, ‘‘it would just be a place for women to process some of their feelings.’
She takes pride in believing that she can connect with anyone and everyone. But in
order to do so, she believes you need to become a chameleon meaning somebody who
easily and frequently changes personality or appearance, in order to respond to the person
before her, particularly when there is a hostile reception after knocking on the door. There
is a veneer that she puts on when connections do not work immediately. Despite her
attempt to be chameleon-like, there are times when she just has to get in the door no matter
what. When the interviewer suggests that it’s like being a sales person and what they call
the getting your foot in the door technique, she responds: ‘‘Anything at any level.’’ The
higher value or code is that the needs of the child are paramount, in spite of what the parent
may want. For her, values are hierarchical, despite any relationships that may have been
established with the parents. Jane has adopted the discourse of child protection whole-
heartedly, in that children are vulnerable and need protection from certain kinds of par-
enting practices. Her role is to protect, above all else, giving her identity a flavor of
policing in many ways. In the situations she described to us, the legal discourse seemed
more dominant than relationship discourses often found other kinds of human service
Connections, therefore, are not always emanating from the heart; rather, they can be
strategic in that they can be primarily a means to an end. Ultimately they can be a way of
gaining information into the family dynamic and environment. Relationships of this sort
appear to be instrumental and are based on a different set of rules, values, and codes for
behavior than those expressed by Olivia. Contingent care comes to mind where certain
conditions, and therefore, constraints, surround the act of caring for another, or in this case,
caring for the mother.
Jane narrates her overall orientation to practice. First, she attempts to appeal to the
shared interests of the child. Next, she works on connecting with the parent in order to get
access to the family context, and finally, she invokes legal discourses, using the threat of
authority, in order to attain compliance. During her process of decision making, there are
multiple sources of knowledge, or discourses that impact her processes of discernment.
Drawing from institutional, legal, and relational discourses, she shifts her allegiance to any
Child Youth Care Forum (2010) 39:27–45 39
of these discourses in order to respond to the child’s best interests. When positioning her
work within a strong detective metaphor she draws more from the legal aspects of the
work; when appealing to the mother to make certain changes, she shifts to a more relational
framework. Discernment, as Jane’s descriptions of practice reveal, is highly relational,
discursive, contingent, and constantly in motion.
Jane’s recollections of her practice experience revealed several aspects of working in
the area of child protection when neglect is a concern including the contingent and con-
ditional aspect of care, the need to disengage at times in order to determine what is going
on, and the need to constantly negotiate the sometimes contradictory roles in order to
attend to the child’s best interests.
Perhaps it comes as no surprise that the investigative, procedural aspect of the work always
had a significant influence for all of our practitioners. This, of course, is to be expected
given the intense scrutiny by the media on their work and the fact that this kind of practice
is highly legislated by the legal system. Interestingly, practitioners were occasionally able
to position legal discourses in the background instead of making them centre stage. One
other participant in our study went so far as to say that his identity as a Ministry employee
does not figure prominently in how he views himself. Instead, he sees himself as a rep-
resentative of the community. He clearly and confidently stated: ‘‘I’m the voice of com-
munity standards.’’ By holding this perspective, he is able to conceptualize his role beyond
what certain institutionalized discourses might emphasize. Of course, this is not a simple
either or choice, being either for the institution or for the people. Distinctions do not fall
into such polarized categories in actual practice. Billig et al. (1988) express it well: ‘‘Many
words [in this case, identities] are not mere labels which neutrally package up the world,
they also express moral evaluations, and such terms frequently come in antithetical
opposites which enable opposing moral judgments to be made’’ (p. 16).
Given that the onus is on practitioners to interpret institutional codes, not just once, but
continuously throughout the course of their everyday practice, this task can be daunting. As
our participants described in so many ways, all decisions are hinged upon each other,
resulting in a decision in one domain producing a series of cascading effects and new
challenges in other domains. Whether to remove a child, bend the rules in order to secure
financial support, keep a file open longer than normal, bring in other professionals, or ask
for hard evidence such as lab test to assess substance use, all of these decisions rely on
practitioner judgments and interpretations. And interpretations are far from neutral. Fur-
ther, no interpretations and decisions to act accordingly are independent of each other.
Although the media excerpt cited at the beginning of this article wanted to script the
protection worker as one who likes to have power over her clients, it is impossible to really
know what unfolded without a clear understanding of the dynamics between the mother
and worker within that particular context.
Based on what we have learned from the three practitioners featured in this article and
others in our study, it is apparent that how our participants positioned themselves in
relation to the work had an impact on what they chose to see or discern. We feel confident
that the lessons learned may be relevant for other practitioners but caution that we cannot
assume that all practitioners will have similar experiences.
Knowledge of others in situations is not a neutral kind of activity. Practitioners bring
their own life and practice experiences, their knowledge of child welfare legislation, their
40 Child Youth Care Forum (2010) 39:27–45
understandings of what constitutes safe parenting, and so on. When a practitioner sees
through the lens of detective work, the cues and information have a particular emphasis;
when seen through a relational lens, the view is very different. What practitioners may
have to grapple with is the realization that they may miss certain kinds of evidence because
of how they have chosen to script and be scripted by the role of child protection.
We have attempted to illustrate that these dynamics (identity construction and processes
of discernment) can be very fluid and in need of constant reflection and possible revision,
particularly when working with the complexities of child neglect. Students learning to
practice in the area of child protection may need to be given opportunities to explore these
kinds of challenges and be provided with educational strategies that will help to expand the
ways in which they discern what may be going on with children and their families. More
holistic research like the kind reported in this article would be helpful in order to under-
stand all of the nuances that impinge upon practitioners’ deliberations. Narrative research
strives to understand how scripts are adopted in light of macro discourses that surround the
phenomenon but in order to deepen the analysis of these participants, a comparative case
study could provide greater depth. Another limitation to our study is that we have no way
of determining the impact of adopting these identities on families. How do clients react, for
example, when a practitioner wholeheartedly adopts a detective persona? How do they act
in response? Does the gender of the recipient of this service make a difference? If so, how?
Despite some of the limitations, we believe that by illuminating the processes of dis-
cernment, we are now able to consider how this complex skill could be enhanced in novice
practitioners. We offer these suggestions for those who teach in postsecondary institutions,
conduct in-service workshops, and/or supervise practitioners in the field.
Implications: Suggestions for Educating Practitioners
Concerted Attending
As our participants illustrated, the skill of attending to context is critical and not easy to
achieve, especially in the midst of an investigation into a family’s way of functioning that
may be foreign to the practitioner. It requires a well-honed skill of paying attention to
subtle cues taken from the environment and such cues do not consist of ‘hard evidence.’ In
situations where neglect is the primary concern, the cues can be well concealed from an
observer, especially when one is newly acquainted with a family. In order to attend to the
context, one also has to be engaged with much more than the physical environment as our
participants explained. At the same time that a practitioner tries to gather evidence, she or
he must also understand the parent’s way of making sense of the situation. This requires a
high level of concentration where one has to move from the particular (minor, concrete
details such as food, shelter, cleanliness) to broader relational details (parental care, child
rearing, attachment issues). Discernment, as all of our participants expressed in various
ways, is a relational activity that requires one to be deeply connected to the context or
phenomenon. Careful and disciplined attention to context, reading the family’s way of
interpreting the situation, and engaging with the family are all simultaneous activities that
need to be continually practiced.
Learning activities can be developed to provide students with opportunities to cultivate
the skill and art of seeing more than what meets the eye, to read below the surface, and to
do this while developing a working relationship. We advocate for the use of film, literature,
and other materials that provide holistic portrayals of human experience as a valuable
Child Youth Care Forum (2010) 39:27–45 41
alternative to what are often reductionist teaching strategies. Equally important are
learning activities that illuminate and foster different interpretations, values, and
assumptions so that student perspectives can be discussed openly.
Disciplined Subjectivity: Finding the Balance
Practitioners highlighted the importance of practicing a certain kind of disciplined sub-
jectivity where subjective knowing is critical and, at the same time, not the only source of
knowledge. Our practitioners confirmed for us that neither pure objectivity nor unleashed
subjectivity is the most viable way to practice. Based on our participant stories and our
own collective practice experience, we argue for a kind of disciplined subjectivity that
takes into account a continual negotiation of meaning. Negotiations include critically
reflecting on one’s own and other’s position while at the same time being aware of the
contingent nature and limitations of any singular perspective. As a brief aside, we often
work with students who have a difficult time bracketing their own personal experiences in
order to connect with another person’s perspective. At the same time, we acknowledge and
appreciate that critically reflecting on experience can result in a valuable blueprint for
understanding. The tension between self and other perspectives always needs to be care-
fully and thoughtfully acknowledged and appreciated but also treated with a certain
amount of caution. We find this to be especially the case whenever students are exploring
their own family experiences. Not only is this precarious ground, but it is always chal-
lenging when it comes to assessing what is valuable and worthy of preserving and what
may be in need of revision. Needless to say, this takes time, energy and a willingness to be
open to multiple perspectives and orientations. Although schools of child and youth care
have devoted much time and energy to fostering a climate of self awareness, the next
challenge for us as educators is to expand our model to include strategies for bracketing
one’s experience without striving for a kind of pseudo ‘objectivity.’
Learning activities need to highlight personal experiences, and at the same time, avoid
turning classrooms into therapy sessions. For example, one of our participants mentioned
that he really learned how to be empathic from his mother, not from any formal education
or training. While we loved the example he shared with us that described how he connected
with a young mother and her child by sitting on the floor with them while the child played,
we also wondered how he managed to be so connected and empathic while having to make
difficult decisions about removing the child from the mother’s care. A useful learning
activity would be to explore his approach further, to highlight how this had worked for and
against him in his worklife, how he gathered other evidence for the viability of this way of
working, how he assessed the effectiveness, and whether or not he may need to amplify
this learning from his family experience, or revise it in light of contradictory evidence.
Evaluative Knowing
Ultimately child protection practitioners need to take positions that may have serious
consequences. Although an appreciation for diversity when it comes to family functioning
was frequently mentioned by our practitioners, they were also sure to avoid implying that
‘anything goes.’’ Evaluating, that is, placing a value onto something or a situation, is a
critical component of discernment. Knowing what is at stake and where one stands in terms
of values, particularly those related to children, families, and parenting need to be con-
tinually revisited.
42 Child Youth Care Forum (2010) 39:27–45
And students could benefit by being provided with opportunities to engage in dialogues
about where they stand on certain parenting related issues. Through open and non-judg-
mental conversations with peers and professors, they can be provided with time and space
to consider the origins of their beliefs and the impact of their positions on their practice.
Learning activities where students have to take different perspectives and to support their
positions need to be provided. While open debates can be risky when it comes to funda-
mental beliefs about parenting and family life, the academic environment should be viewed
as a safe place for these kinds of sensitive discussions.
Appreciating Embodied Knowing
Educators need to acknowledge and appreciate that there are multiple ways of knowing for
determining the ‘truth’’ of any situation (see, for example, Artz 1994; White 2007).
Ironically, practitioners seemed reluctant to discuss the intuitive aspect of their practice
and how explicit and implicit metaphors actually shaped the ways they understood what
they did and why. We argue that these ways of knowing can be as legitimate as so called
‘objective’ knowing and should be highlighted in training and education. Lakoff and
Johnson’s (1999) work on embodied knowing along with others found in child and youth
care literature (see, for example, Krueger 2008; Newbury and Hoskins 2008; Phelan 2008)
highlight the relationship between metaphorical thinking and how one comes to understand
the world. Knowing, as our participants highlighted, is not a distant or objective process,
but is an embodied activity that requires attending to multiple signs, symbols, facts,
information, rules, standards, values, and so on. As exemplified in our participants’ stories,
the final weaving together of all of these aspects of knowing does not always come easily.
And it is these four aspects of discernment including meticulous attention to context,
disciplined subjectivity, evaluative and embodied knowing that all influence how a prac-
titioner engages in processes of discernment in practice.
Curricula should attempt to reflect the embodied aspect of the generation and processes
of knowing. Educators need to consider learning activities that move beyond abstract,
factual knowledge to also include more holistic embodied approaches. As mentioned
above, the use of film, documentaries and/or literature can be helpful when used in criti-
cally thoughtful ways. For example, recently some of us on the research team attended an
interpretive art session that illuminated the ways in which we engaged in processes of
thinking, feeling and intuiting to determine what we believed was going on in the painting.
Values, assumptions, prior knowledge and experience all came to the foreground and
provided an interesting and valuable way to examine the viability of reading and inter-
preting a specific object or context. More activities such as these could be integrated into
existing child protection courses.
Understanding Personal and Professional Identities
There is one final note about discernment that we contend is critical, yet tends to be
minimized both in the practice literature and from our knowledge of postsecondary edu-
cation. As our participants illustrated so clearly, a person’s identity (how they perceive
themselves and how they want to be perceived by others), influences what tends to get
highlighted and what may be relegated to the background. In short, one’s subjectivity such
as social location, prior experience, life circumstances, orientation towards truth, as well as
moral and ethical orientations towards others, all influence processes of discernment in
practice settings. As you will have also noticed in our participant narratives, how
Child Youth Care Forum (2010) 39:27–45 43
practitioners construct their ‘‘selves’’ in workplace situations is often congruent with their
self constructions in their personal lives.
Recent research has emphasized that gender also plays a role in the inclination to use
one’s authority, particularly in emergency situations (Fargion 2006; Lazar 2006). Episte-
mologies and ontologies go hand in hand, and it could also be argued that personal style
(personality and gendered identities) also play key parts in overall narratives of practice.
We view this phenomenon not as a problem or as unprofessional, but rather as an important
complexity that tends to be covered over by instrumental and professional discourses (see
also Rhodes 2007; Witkin and Saleebey 2007).
Helping students to see that roles or positions are always relational may help them to see
the value in deepening their awareness of how they have to be flexible in order to adapt to
each family and each situation. Throughout this article we have used the term ‘role’,
‘position,’ and ‘identity’ interchangeably. It may also be helpful to orient students towards
some of the distinctions (and some of the historical biases), when using these terms. What
many of our participants described was not a clearly defined role, position, or identity that
fit all circumstances, but a kind of intersubjectivity where each character (worker and
client) discursively shaped each other’s subjectivity in various ways resulting in various
effects and outcomes.
Acknowledgments We would like to acknowledge Drs. Artz and Magnuson as fellow researchers and
Nathan Patten, M.A. CYC, Jeremy Berland, MSW, Janet Newbury, M.A. CYC and Sobhana Daniel MSW.
for providing research assistance and extensive and valuable consultation for this project.
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... Child protection workers work in an environment with families where there is a high level of uncertainty and conflicting evidence (Hoskins & White, 2010). As a result, in times of uncertainty workers often use intuition based on experience to sort the information they collect and attempt to reach a decision (Munro, 1996). ...
... However, stereotypes and biases, and the resulting attitudes, carry with them certain assumptions and expectations that are not readily open to change. As a result of these cognitive processes, workers may attend to information that confirms their assumptions, rather than information that challenges those assumptions and attitudes (Hoskins & White, 2010). This unconscious refusal to re-analyze maltreatment assessments has been noted as one of the causes of avoidable child protection mistakes (Munro, 1996). ...
... A worker's personal beliefs about what is the best place for a child to grow has the potential to influence their decisions when it comes to out-of-home care placement and reunification (Hoskins & White, 2010). For example, a worker focused on therapeutic, strengths-based client interaction and decision-making might be more likely to engage in family reunification than a worker who focuses on enforcement. ...
Purpose: Decision making in child protection is influenced by many elements, some of which are poorly understood. An element that requires further examination is child protection worker attitude toward responsibility for child safety. This paper will examine the factors that influence child protection workers’ attitudes on the responsibility for child safety. Method: Using the Quality Improvement Project on Differential Response data from Illinois we used bivariate and multivariate analyses to determine the characteristics that influence worker attitude towards child safety. Worker attitude was designed as a continuous variable of belief in family responsibility for child safety compared to state responsibility for child safety. Results: Bivariate analyses indicate there are significant differences in attitudes based on the amount of training completed, education, and worker age. Linear regression analyses indicate that significant predictors of worker attitudes include self-perception of skills, confidence in community resources, confidence in the child protection system, and worker age. Conclusion: Increased knowledge of the factors that influence child protection workers’ attitudes can allow organizations to direct training and resources towards shifting attitudes in the direction that favors agency mandate and needs.
... First, they fulfilled the visible, institutionally required aspect of the admissions counseling position and gathered information to complete the application process. Second, the admissions counselors did discernment work in their attempts to understand the experience of the potential clients based upon vague or difficult to interpret information (Hoskins and White 2010). The counselors worked to discern who would (and who would not) be a suitable client for treatment, at this time. ...
Much of the published literature about addictions counseling has traditionally focused on research supporting evidence-based approaches to treatment, establishing and maintaining best practices to achieve and maintain recovery, and prescribing how therapeutic interventions ought to be delivered. Little attention has been directed toward translating recovery into something that is done in the day-to-day work of counselors within addictions treatment institutions, how this doing is socially organized more broadly, and who this doing is done with (and to). In this entry I invite readers to consider how our recovery practices are constructed and maintained, the work counselors engage in to facilitate these practices, and that occasions from people in accessing and participating in these practices.
... role of CYC professionals, availability of mental health resources) influence their mental health literacy practices. Hoskins and White (2010) may also inform new suicide education approaches based on their research with professionals located within child protection contexts. The researchers identify various learning activities that are designed to develop students' skill of attending to the context of practice. ...
Child and youth care (CYC) professionals often provide care to children, youth and families in conjunction with professionals from other disciplines. How CYC professionals engage other service providers in the provision of care for suicidal adolescents requires examination. The purpose of the overall study was to understand and explain the process of CYC professionals' mental health literacy practices with suicidal adolescents. Findings presented here provide insight into the process of CYC professionals' practice with other service providers in the context of their encounters with suicidal adolescents. Using a constructivist grounded theory method, data were collected and analysed from interviews with CYC professionals, supervisors within youth-serving community agencies, educators within Schools of Child and Youth Care, and extant texts of relevance to suicide, such as organisational policies, assessment tools, and suicide education curricula. One practice identified during analysis, flooding the zone, is the focus of the present paper. Flooding refers to the process of contacting and informing a myriad of professionals or services of the adolescent's suicidality, and was comprised of making decisions as to whom to contact, informing the adolescent, and negotiating with services. Professionals' perceptions of their role and the availability and accessibility of mental health services influenced the practice of flooding. Based on analysis of the data, flooding the zone has the potential to disrupt CYC professionals' relational proximity to the adolescent and may reinforce a devalued role for CYC professionals in suicide intervention within the larger mental health system of care.
... The fact that the decision-making process in child protection cases requires child welfare professionals to interpret ambiguous situations can render professionals vulnerable to their own subjectivity (Hoskins & White, 2010). Since comprehension of people and situations is a non-neutral form of activity, and one that requires attention to multiple signs, symbols, facts, standards, values, etc., the decisionmaking process in child placement cases requires constant reflection, revision, and awareness by professionals of the dynamic nature of this process. ...
This study aims to examine the judicial voice in compulsory adoption decisions, from a non-legal perspective, that is, it aims to analyze judges' references to non-legal aspects of such cases. The assumption of the study is that, due to abstract legal concepts in the Israeli law of adoption and the complexity of adoption cases, judges often refer to non-legal aspects of a case while constructing the family story in their decisions. The study makes use of the narrative approach to law in order to investigate forms of non-legal references and their narrative function in adoption decisions. A textual narrative analysis of 130 court decisions in favor of compulsory adoption revealed three primary themes: the judges' emotional difficulties when deciding such cases; references by the judges to the distressful life circumstances of the biological parents; and the judges' expressions of hope and comfort to parents whose child is declared eligible for adoption. The study discusses the narrative function of such references in establishing social legitimization of court decisions and the possible bias effect created by the emotional reactions of the professionals involved. It stresses the need for a deliberative, considered decision-making process by professionals, in order to ensure that the right decision is made in the crucial matter of child placement.
While there has been an increasing professional and political focus on the prevalence and harmfulness of child neglect, little has been done to explore what child neglect means outside child protection circles. This qualitative study explores lay constructions of child neglect by thematically analyzing focus group discussions between 46 self-defined ‘lay’ people in England. Participants viewed neglect as extremely damaging for children and as arising when children’s physical, emotional, training and supervisory needs were unmet due to abnormal parental behavior. Children with unmet needs were positioned as deprived, unloved, uncontrolled and escaping. They were only positioned as neglected when failure to meet their needs was attributable to a lack of parental knowledge and skill (clueless parents), a lack of appropriate parental disposition (underinvested parents) or both (unsuitable parents). ‘Normal’ parents – those with the appropriate parental disposition, skills and knowledge – who failed to meet their children’s needs were not seen as neglectful but rather as overburdened. As ‘normal parenting’ has fragmented in late modernity, society wide consensus on child neglect was felt by participants to have retreated to child protection definitions, alienating lay understandings. If child neglect really is ‘everybody’s business’, then it is important that lay people are included in forging new definitions of and responses to meeting the needs of children.
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In this article we describe some of the challenges and constraints that students face when they engage in qualitative research interviews. We borrow extensively from Ron Pelias’ in-depth description of leaning in during everyday life encounters. Although he refers to other kinds of relationships, we believe that the similarities are too important to overlook when it comes to the qualitative research interview. We begin the discussion by identifying what we believe are the main challenges facing novice qualitative researchers. Issues of professional identities, objectivity, relational engagement, and inherited understandings of what counts as research are highlighted. This article will be useful for graduate students engaged in narrative, ethnographic, and auto-ethnographic methodologies as well as other inquiries that require deeply relational processes. Recommendations for the kinds of supervisory conversations that may be helpful are included.
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Ambiguity over the concepts of “parental capability” and “the child’s best interests” in the Israeli adoption law, and a lack of sufficient professional knowledge can lead to bias in the professional decision-making process regarding child adoption. This study investigates the idea that judges do not use only legal considerations and relevant information relating to the child-parent relationship but also social information about the biological parent whose parental capability is under legal consideration. The study makes use of the priming paradigm as a conceptual framework for understanding the possible effect of social information on legal judgments in child adoption cases. The textual narrative analysis of 130 court decisions in favor of compulsory adoption reveals the use in courts of three kinds of social information about biological parents: familial information, sexual information, and social-functional information. The study discusses the role of such information in establishing the judicial narrative of parental incapability. In order to “de-bias” the judicial decision-making process regarding child placement, a number of strategies for consideration as social policy are proposed. KeywordsAdoption–Decision making–Parental capability–Social information
Recent years have witnessed increased international interest in the relevance of social theories associated with postmodernism, social constructionism and narrative approaches for social work. The central aim of this unique book is to demonstrate how such ideas can make a direct and positive contribution to social work practice. The innovative approach is affirmative and reflexive and emphasis is given to dialogue, process and plurality of knowledge and voice. Richly illustrated by case examples, the book is an ideal introduction to a crucially important new area of social work theory.
A leading MIT social scientist and consultant examines five professions--engineering, architecture, management, psychotherapy, and town planning--toshow how professionals really go about solving problems.
Preface PART 1: TWO NATURAL KINDS 1. Approaching the Literary 2. Two Modes of Thought 3. Possible Castles PART 2: LANGUAGE AND REALITY 4. The Transactional Self 5. The Inspiration of Vygotsky 6. Psychological Reality 7. Nelson Goodman's Worlds 8. Thought and Emotion PART 3: ACTING IN CONSTRUCTED WORLDS 9. The Language of Education 10. Developmental Theory as Culture Afterword Appendix: A Reader's Retelling of "Clay" by James Joyce Notes Credits Index
Something Old, Something New Description, Analysis, and Interpretation in Qualitative Inquiry PART ONE: EMPHASIS ON DESCRIPTION Adequate Schools and Inadequate Education The Life History of a Sneaky Kid The Elementary School Principal Notes from a Field Study Confessions of a 'Trained' Observer PART TWO: EMPHASIS ON ANALYSIS A Malay Village That Progress Chose Sungai Lui and the Institute of Cultural Affairs Life's Not Working Cultural Alternatives to Career Alternatives PART THREE: EMPHASIS ON INTERPRETATION The Teacher as an Enemy Afterword, 1989 A Kwakiutl Village and School 25 Years Later The Acquisition of Culture Notes on a Working Paper On Seeking - and Rejecting - Validity in Qualitative Research PART FOUR: TEACHING AND LEARNING QUALITATIVE INQUIRY Teaching Qualitative Inquiry Learning Qualitative Inquiry Some Power of Reasoning, Much Aided