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Social work and child protection: whose job is it anyway?

This guest blog is by Dr Philip Gillingham. Philip’s blog post is particularly pertinent for us here in Aotearoa New Zealand, where the legitimacy of Social Work as the primary profession delivering child protection services is increasingly questioned. Philip draws links between poorly qualified workers, technical approaches to risk management, and a ‘child rescue’ mentality that can undermine quality practice. He is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, and a qualified social worker with 27 years experience working in, and conducting research about, child protection services. Recent publications can be viewed at http://researchers.uq.edu.au/researcher/2576

A key theme in child protection reforms is workforce development but seldom does the question arise about who should be doing child protection work. In most jurisdictions it is qualified social workers but there are some states in the USA and all in Australia (except South Australia) where a social work qualification is not required. In the background article to this blog, the reasons why Australia, historically, does not require qualified social workers are explored (Gillingham, 2015). Here, the focus is on why qualified social workers are required in child protection.

Internationally, child protection has become the most public and debated area of social work, though the inextricable association between the two has been lamented by some. Indeed in most of the Anglophone world, it is unthinkable that anyone other than qualified social workers would be employed to work in the complex and demanding area of child protection. It is akin to suggesting that doctors, nurses and teachers, while they might need some “on the job” training or “professional development”, do not really need to spend several years at university to become qualified.
As a qualified and experienced social worker moving to child protection in Victoria, Australia in the 1990s, the reality that most of my colleagues were not qualified therefore came as a shock. This was compounded when I conducted the ethnographic fieldwork for my PhD (Gillingham, 2009) in the Queensland Department of Child Safety in 2007. In both locations, qualified social workers are few and far between and in both, I witnessed some very bad practice that amounted to gross incompetence.

Organizationally, the thinking was that providing in-house training to unqualified workers would suffice. The other key strategy was to provide workers with tools to help their decision making at key points in intake, investigation and intervention, such as the Structured Decision Making (SDM) tools in Queensland. My research focused on how workers used these tools and it was found, in short, that they did not. Debate ensued with the developers of the SDM tools, the Children’s Research Centre in Wisconsin, USA (CRC) about the efficacy of the tools. The CRC position was that the tools could only be used to supplement rather than replace professional judgement, akin to how predictive risk modelling might be used in Aotearoa/New Zealand (see MSD, 2014). The CRC representatives were horrified that most of the workers in Queensland were not qualified social workers.

When mainly unqualified workers are employed in child protection, the focus of practice can become “saving” children from their seemingly “unworthy” parents. Removing children from their parents becomes the main response to the perceived risk of harm to children. Workers who have a degree in, for example, psychology, social policy or sociology, lack both the knowledge, skills and frequently the inclination to engage with parents to deal with the circumstances that have led to them being notified to child protection services. I have also seen many exceptions, where non-qualified workers have done excellent work, and it these workers who provide insights into why qualified social workers are needed. During interviews they described how they felt ill-equipped to do the job and pursued every opportunity to enhance their knowledge and skills. The knowledge and skills they needed could not be condensed into a few weeks of professional development, or distilled into a set of risk assessment tools. Some expressed the intention to pursue a degree in social work.

For many, the answer to the question of whether qualified social workers perform better than non-qualified workers in child is obvious, but the sparse research in this area is mixed. However, performance has to be considered in terms of what it is that social workers are expected to do in child protection services. If services are to be focused on forensic investigation and child rescue, then it is debatable whether qualified social workers would perform better in such a context. This is not the type of service that supports the best outcomes for children and their families, and reforms that constrain social workers to this type of role should be viewed with caution. Recent proposals for reform emphasize the need for prevention through early intervention and family support. Such initiatives require greater engagement and therapeutic intervention with children and families. This is precisely what qualified social workers are trained to do, hence there is no need to debate who should be employed in child protection services.

References

Gillingham, P. (2015) Social work and child protection in Australia: Whose job is it anyway? Practice: Social Work in Action. Published 17 July 2015. DOI:10.1080/09503153.2015.1074670
Gillingham, P. (2009) The use of assessment tools in child protection: an ethnomethodological study. University of Melbourne. Published at: http://repository.unimelb.edu.au/10187/4337
MSD (2014) Final report on feasibility of using predictive risk modelling. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Social Development, Wellington. Accessed at http://www.msd.govt.nz/

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