Centre for Research on Discretion and Paternalism Bergen

Researching child welfare systems

Global regulations and conventions

Article 3, Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)

  1. In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.
  2. States Parties undertake to ensure the child such protection and care as is necessary for his or her well-being, taking into account the rights and duties of his or her parents, legal guardians, or other individuals legally responsible for him or her, and, to this end, shall take all appropriate legislative and administrative measures.
  3. States Parties shall ensure that the institutions, services and facilities responsible for the care or protection of children shall conform with the standards established by competent authorities, particularly in the areas of safety, health, in the number and suitability of their staff, as well as competent supervision.

The CRC regulates child welfare across all countries (except the US). It also regulates the obligation to ensure child protection. Except from the United States, all countries in the world has ratified the CRC, meaning all countries are obligated to ensure the protection of children. Although all countries are bound by the same obligations, implementation is carried out in different ways. On the following site you will find comparative information about different child welfare systems, as well as some structural, organizational and statistical facts about the countries included in our research projects (past, present and future projects).

All content is gathered from our books: Gilbert et al (2011), Skivenes et al (2015) and Burns et al (2016).

Risk oriented or service oriented?

Child welfare systems in modern states can crudely be categorized into two types; risk oriented and service oriented. Risk-oriented systems have relatively high thresholds for intervention and focus on mitigating serious risks to children’s health and safety (e.g. the US). In these systems, the barriers to intervene in the private sphere are high. In service-oriented systems, the aim is to promote healthy childhood as well as to mitigate serious risks, with an emphasis on the prevention of harm. Thus, the state provides early intervention services to children and families in at-risk-situations, to prevent escalation to more serious risk to the child (Gilbert et al, 2011; Burns et al, 2016; Skivenes, 2011).

Decision-making bodies

An underpinning principle for all child welfare systems in modern democratic states is that children and parents should be protected against arbitrary and unwarranted state interventions. However, the tools to assess the necessity of interventions differ. The guidelines for assessments, the risk criteria, and the nature of child welfare practices differ significantly between countries. The basic premise for most decision-making models is that decisions should be based on solid information regarding the contents of a case and the parties’ situations, that the possible choices of action and their consequences must be explored, and that the possible results should be ranked in relation to overall goals (Burns et al, 2016).

Differences and common global themes in child protection


  • The degree of involvement of parents and children in decision-making processes
  • Legal systems – who decides what?
  • Degree of standardization of decision-making
  • Each country has its own unique approach to decision-making bodies, processes, decision-makers and knowledge bases
  • Thresholds for intervention vary a great deal among countries, reflecting different child welfare system orientations
  • The authority to undertake or facilitate removals of children – with or without parental and/or children’s consent – differs among countries
  • Some countries set specific age limits for children’s participation in decision-making, others do not. The age limit for becoming a full party to the decision-making process also varies across countries. In Finland this is 12, in Norway and Sweden it is 15, whilst in England it is 16.


  • Media scrutiny and public spotlight
  • Dramatic pace of organizational, policy, and legislative change – particular in the aftermath of a crisis (ex. Baby P-case in England and the Kristoffer-case in Norway).
  • Multicultural population
  • The threshold for intervention affects the rates for child welfare removals
  • The child welfare systems are expanding
  • Growth in formal procedures and evidence-based initiatives

(Gilbert et al, 2011).

Interested in comparative analysis of child welfare systems?

The following list of questions could be used to scaffold a reflective evaluation of child welfare removals system in any child welfare system (Burns et al, 2016):

Setting the scene for your research project

  1. What times of child protection removal systems do you have in your country?
  2. Who are the decision-makers in these systems?
  3. Are the thresholds for removals “appropriate” to ensure protection of children’s welfare, while also respecting the right to family life?
  4. What are the dominant narratives and themes in the media, research, and practice associated with child welfare removal systems in your country?
  5. What questions arise from these dominant narratives and themes about the strengths and weaknesses of your country’s child protection system?
  6. In what ways do societal and political attitudes towards the welfare state affect the provision of support to families who come into contact with child protection removal systems?
  7. How would you assess the surrounding political, legal, welfare and social policy landscape; is it supportive, risk tolerant, and willing to invest significant resources to support parents under pressure? Or is it risk adverse, intolerant, blaming, and unwilling to commit sufficient resources?
  8. How dominant is family preservation and family reunion as a social policy objective in your country, and how does this affect removal and reunification rates?
  9. What additional resources could be invested in prevention and early intervention to prevent children from entering state care and to support their parents more effectively to continue parenting? What interventions could effectively target families to prevent children’s re-entry to state care?

Governance and research requirements:

  1. What research evidence exists on the functioning and adequacy of your country’s removal system?
  2. Is there sufficient statistical and research data in your country on this system?
  3. How can the legitimacy of removal decisions be verified?
  4. Do all decision-making processes have sufficient independent oversight and mechanisms to ensure transparency?

Relevant literature