Centre for Research on Discretion and Paternalism Bergen

Responses to Children Appearing to be at Risk

PUBLICATION: Professional discretion differs between child welfare systems and workers, find a new study by Berrick, Dickens, Pösö and Skivenes.

The paper “A Cross-Country Comparison of Child Welfare Systems and Workers’ Responses to Children Appearing to be at Risk or in Need of Help” by Jill Berrick, Jonathan Dickens, Tarja Pösö and Marit Skivenes, explores professional discretionary decision making in child protection.

The study compares how frontline staff in four national child welfare systems and policy contexts – Finland, Norway, England and the USA (California) – respond to questions about a scenario of possible harm to children. The countries have different child welfare systems, something we expected would be reflected in the workers’ responses (n = 1027).

Our analysis showed differences and similarities between the systems, though often not in line with our expectations of the different child welfare systems. Findings also showed variation within the country samples. The study showed the complex interactions between: 1) individual and agency characteristics, 2) standardized decision-making systems and 3) professional discretion.

Key messages from the paper:

  • Professional discretion differs.
  • Standardized and high threshold systems result in less variation between workers’ responses.
  • The traditional system categories (risk-, family- and service oriented) do not seem to capture the nuances of frontline decision-making.

If you would like to read more, the full article is available at:

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