Project: Decision-making in child welfare: A trans-national study

Funder: Norwegian Research Council

Dates: January 2014 – August 2016

Research Team: Professor Jonathan Dickens with international colleagues: Professor Marit Skivenes (Norway), Professor Jill Berrick (USA), Professor Tarja Poso (Finland)


The compulsory removal of children from their parents is one of the most intrusive interventions that a state can make in the lives of its citizens, and imposes great responsibilities on the various professionals involved. The decisions they have to make are intellectually and emotionally demanding. In difficult and often uncertain circumstances, they have to try to engage with the parents, work with professionals from other disciplines, and comply with legal requirements and organisational procedures. All this takes place within a wider context of the state’s overall welfare approach and its specific child and family welfare policies.


At the beginning of 2014, Jonathan Dickens joined a cross-national study of decision-making in child protection and care order cases, with colleagues from Norway, Finland and the USA. The aim is to explore how decisions about taking children into care are made by social workers and the courts in these different countries. What knowledge and expertise is relied upon? How tightly regulated are the processes, and what room is there for individual professional judgement? What priority is given to involving parents and young people in the decision making processes? What biases and errors are more or less likely in the four countries? What is the potential for cross-national learning to improve policy and practice?


The study is a three stage project. The first stage, completed before Professor Dickens joined the project, was a cross-national comparison of the wider legal and policy framework – key legislation, government policy, regulations and guidance. This was based on studying the relevant documents and interviews with key informants in each country. The second stage, currently in progress, is a questionnaire survey of social workers who are involved in deciding whether cases should go to court, and doing pre-proceedings work. The third stage will focus on decision-making in the courts.


Findings from the first stage of the study confirm that whilst there are similarities in the day-to-day practice and decision-making of child welfare workers in the four countries, there are important differences between them. All the countries emphasise the primacy of the child’s welfare or ‘best interests’, but this is interpreted differently, in policy and practice, according to wider social values. Although there are ambiguities and overlaps, the US and English systems may be characterised as ‘child protection’ systems, with high levels of regulation, whereas the emphasis in Norway and Finland is on ‘family support’, with lower thresholds for state intervention and more room for individual judgement by child welfare workers.


Awareness of the similarities and differences between the four countries creates an important opportunity to reflect on the policy underpinnings of welfare practice, and the implications for the children and their families.

The highly-regulated US and English systems could learn from the ways that parents and children are supported and offered voice in the Nordic systems. The Nordic systems may be able to learn from the research rigour and standardisation of the US and English systems.


A range of publications are planned in academic journals and book chapters.