Kelly, Nancy (2000) Decision making in child protection practice. Doctoral thesis, University of Huddersfield.

This research explores the decision making processes of individuals and groups engaged in
child protection practice within social services departments in the UK. The emphasis of the
research was to consider how the application of psychological theories and concepts might
allow a descriptive and interpretative evaluation of decision processes in child protection
practice. The research sought to elaborate upon much of previous social work literature in that
it focused upon the processes of decision making rather than the outcomes for participants.
Similarly it sought to elaborate upon literature in decision theory in that it focused upon real
world, ongoing and naturalistic decision situations. The theoretical framework used in the
research was an integrated model of decision making under conditions of risk proposed by
Whyte (1989,1991). This model outlines circumstances under which individuals and groups
may take decisions in the directions of risk or caution.

The methodological approach was grounded in the principles of qualitative research. Drawing
upon Forster (1994) and Yin (1989) documentary analysis was applied to case studies. The
research considered documents in relation to two categories of child protection cases. Initially
those where children who were already known to child protection practitioners had died,
namely, child death inquiry reports. Ongoing cases within a local authority child protection
department, where the outcomes and decision making were considered to be positive, were
then analysed. The interpretation from the first stage of the research suggested that all the
concepts outlined in Whyte's model could have explanatory value and that the deaths of
children could be a consequence of the ways in which decisions are framed and which leave
children in situations of risk. The second stage involved the analysis of documents in relation
to eight ongoing cases within a local authority. The number of group meetings held in the eight
cases was 38 and in 71% of these the operation of the certainty effect in the direction of risk
was evident. In the remaining 39% there was evidence that the certainty effect operated in the
direction of caution. Within the documents there was some evidence of group polarisation and
groupthink. Resources were committed and escalated consistently in order to ensure the
effectiveness of initial plans of action despite evidence that these were unsuccessful in terms of
the overall well being of the children.

The decisions were shown to be bounded by the 'objective' principles of the Children Act 1989
and Working Together (1991). However themes that emerged from the analysis of the cases
suggest that there is a 'subjective' influence on decision processes. Evident within the analysis
was a shared fundamental belief in keeping children with their mothers. Both these objective
and subjective influences suggest that almost inevitably decision making in child protection
practice will be driven in directions that result in courses of action that involve potential and
actual risks for children. The findings emphasise how an explicit recognition of the
multifaceted nature of decision making can assist in more reflective practice. The ways in
which national and local policy impacts upon decision processes, at the level of the individual
and groups, need to be monitored in order that the needs of children in situations that involve
risk remain paramount.

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