Academic journal article Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare

Negotiating 'Professional Agency': Social Work and Decision-Making within the Ontario Child Welfare System

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare

Negotiating 'Professional Agency': Social Work and Decision-Making within the Ontario Child Welfare System

Article excerpt

This article explores how social work as a discipline has helped to negotiate professional agency in decision-making within the restructured child protection system. The narratives of child protection workers affirm that a restrictive climate does exist in child protection agencies and that it indeed shapes the way they make their decisions. This study uses institutional ethnography as the methodology for exploring the decision-making practices of child protection workers. Three forms of data collection were used: experience as data, documentation reviews and in-depth interviews.

Keywords: child protection, social work, decision-making, institutional ethnography

Introduction

The massive child welfare system restructuring and resultant standardized Ontario Risk Assessment Model (ORAM) that have emerged in recent years in Ontario have had profound impacts upon the ways in which social workers within the system practice. Loss of professional autonomy due to the proceduralization and standardization of practices has been of particular concern to social workers as they struggle to adjust to a system that does not trust them to make sound decisions and that, in many respects, moreover, puts procedures in place in an attempt to restrict their freedom (Powell, 1998).

In this article, we explore how social work as a discipline has helped to negotiate professional agency in decision-making within the restructured child protection system. We use the term 'professional agency' when we talk about the capacity child protection social workers have to exercise their social work knowledge, skills and clinical judgement when making decisions in the context of their everyday child protection practices. The narratives of child protection social workers affirm that a restrictive climate does exist in child protection organization and that it indeed shapes the way decisions are made. The restructured system has been designed specifically in an attempt to remove the professional agency previously awarded to social workers. However, our research shows that within that structure, child protection workers continue to exercise considerable professional agency in their complex decision-making processes.

Research findings reveal that social workers within the restructured child protection system continue to be active subjects in the processes of decision-making, contrary to the notions of worker disempowerment that currently prevail in this area.

Decision-making in Child Protection Practice

Decision-making in child protection is a complex activity that is always fraught with uncertainty. One of the issues that complicates decision-making is the dilemma that social workers face of trying to balance the child's safety and best interests with the desire to support the family and uphold their right to privacy and freedom from intrusion. Further complicating decision-making is the fact that child abuse is not a static concept but one that has been variously defined across time and context (Cradock, 2004; Gold et al., 2001). Additionally, child protection social workers also experience considerable pressure as their decisions have come under intense scrutiny by the public, particularly the media (Mennen and O'Keefe, 2005; Smith and Donovan, 2003). They have been accused of being neglectful on the one hand, and overzealous in their interventions on the other (Corby, 2003). Such allegations are more than simply media panic, however. The existence of these two extremes in workers' interventions has been confirmed in research (Platt, 2006).

Several studies document the origins and nature of decision-making errors (i.e., failure to protect children from harm) in child protection practice. Most authors tend to concur that errors often arise as a result of workers' utilization of various mental shortcuts and rules-of-thumb to simplify the complex and varied information they are confronted with in their practice (Gambrill, 2005; Munro, 1999). …

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