By: Kristen Lwin, Joanne Filippelli, Barbara Fallon, Jason King and Nico Trocmé 

Child Maltreatment 

Review written by: Dr David Wilkins

What question does this study focus on? 

This study looks at the influence of caseworker characteristics on judgements about the likelihood of child maltreatment. For example, whether experienced workers are more or less likely to predict future child maltreatment, compared with inexperienced workers.   

How did they study it?

The paper uses data collected from Canada, comprised of 1,729 child protection investigations and 419 child welfare workers. They used various statistical tools to find out what caseworker characteristics could be used to predict the outcome of the investigations.  

What did they find?

Three-quarters of the children (n=1,363) were not judged to be at significant risk of future maltreatment. Younger children (between 0 and 5) were more likely to be judged at significant risk compared with older children (5+). This was also true when the child’s carer was living in poverty, had multiple risk factors (e.g., substance misuse and mental health problems), fewer social supports, and had previous child welfare involvement. The carer’s ethnicity was not associated with the outcome of the investigation. In relation to workers, those with Master’s degrees were almost twice as likely to judge the child to be at risk of significant harm compared to workers with Bachelor degrees. Workers with more than two years’ experience, and those with larger caseloads (18+) were also more likely to predict future significant harm. The worker’s ethnicity did not predict perceptions of future maltreatment.  

What are the implications? 

The paper hypothesises that workers with Master’s degrees may have additional knowledge about child maltreatment, which increases their perceptions of risk. Workers with more experience may also notice more risk factors, and thus judge the risk of future child maltreatment to be higher.  The reason why workers with higher caseloads were more likely to predict future maltreatment is less clear. The authors suggest that such workers may be more methodical in their work, and hence slower to close or transfer cases elsewhere. Because they are more methodical, they may notice more risk factors and hence be more likely to predict future maltreatment. Or maybe workers thought to be more capable are allocated more complex work, involving children at higher risk. 

Overall, the paper concludes that we have limited information about the worker characteristics that influence perceptions of future child maltreatment, and more research is needed. What is clear, from this and other studies, is that families will receive a different assessment and intervention response, depending on which worker is allocated to their case. This may, within limits, be an inevitable and even acceptable limitation of service provision – but too much variation will mean that some children and families are treated so differently as to constitute an injustice.  

Review written by

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Dr David Wilkins