Centre for Research on Discretion and Paternalism Bergen

Decision-makers draw unevenly on expert evidence

NEW ARTICLE:Researcher Audun Løvlie (UiB) evaluates how decision-makers in the Norwegian County Social Welfare Board consider disciplinary evidence in child protection interventions of familial violence published in the Child & Family Social Work.[1]

In cases where child protection services are concerned about the welfare of a child and consider foster care placement, they refer the case to the County Social Welfare Boards. In court-like proceedings, the County Board make decisions after testimonies from concerned parties and experts and considerations of all available evidence.

Based on in-depth analysis of 104 publicly available written care order decisions, Løvlie investigates how decision-makers use and evaluate evidence from expert witnesses. Experts in this context are understood broadly as disciplinary practitioners working with children and families, such as psychologists, social workers, and physicians.

These witnesses provide testimonies relevant to the case, based on their insight into the situation of the child, parents, family, and their research-based disciplinary knowledge.

Disciplinary evidence used in almost all cases

Given the implications a care order decision may have on people’s lives, it is imperative that the process and decision made by the County Board are both legitimate and transparent.

– The study is significant because it can help us understand on the one hand how decision-makers use evidence in their decisions and on the other hand, to what extent they offer independent reasoning or largely defer assessments to experts, says Løvlie.

Deferring decisions to experts are potentially problematic in terms of the imperfections of scientific literature and knowledge as well as experts’ often differing opinions, and it may be a concern that County Board decision-makers rely too much on experts and thus does not make an independently reasoned decision as required by law (see The Child Welfare Act, 1992 §7-3).

In almost all the examined decisions – 97% – disciplinary evidence is indeed used. The analysis shows that the evidence considered largely revolves around the social functioning of the parents and child, the care context, and the relationship between the parents and the child.

–  Disciplinary evidence is used to determine whether the child’s situation is harmful, whether support services are viable, and whether a care order is in the child’s best interests, explains Løvlie.

Acceptive, evaluative and critical assessments of evidence

While disciplinary evidence is clearly prevalent in care order decisions of familial violence, the study also shows that the County Board in some cases demonstrate the necessary experience and skill to assess the quality and relevance of the disciplinary evidence.

– The use and evaluation of disciplinary evidence in the published decisions are characterized by a combination of acceptance, evaluation, and criticism of disciplinary evidence. The decision-makers of the County Boards vary between dependently deferring to the epistemic authority of the experts and independently endorsing – even criticizing – the disciplinary evidence, asserting the competency and authority to make their own independent assessment, explains Løvlie.

Moreover, the study finds variations in terms of which of the legal requirements for a care order the County Board decision-makers draw on disciplinary evidence in their reasoning and justification.

– While justifications of the legal threshold based on assessments of risk of harm overwhelmingly draw on disciplinary evidence, it is not as commonly drawn upon in considerations of support measures nor when determining the child’s best interest. This variation in the use of disciplinary evidence may suggest an inconsistency in how the evidence serves the decision-makers’ reasoning. While it could be part of the in-person deliberations, its apparent absences in some written accounts, may confound the conclusion from a lay perspective. This lack of transparency about the potential role of disciplinary evidence may be a challenge to accountability and legitimacy of some decisions, says Løvlie.

Whether this absence is because these issues are found to be easier to judge, remains an unresolved question.

The article is open access and available by clicking the link below.

[1] Løvlie, A. G. (2022) Evidence in Norwegian child protection interventions – Analysing cases of familial violence. Child & Family Social Work. Early view, July 2022.

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