Legitimacy and Fallibility in Child Welfare Services

Project Team: Marit Skivenes (P.I.), Tarja Pösö, Jonathan Dickens, Jill Berrick, Milfrid Tonheim, Line Sørsdal, Øyvind Tefre, Ida Benedicte Juhasz, Karl H. Søvig

Timeframe: 09/01/2012 - 08/31/2016

The need for improved child welfare systems is urgent worldwide, because we know that the outcome for children in these systems is unsatisfactory, and the evidence for the correlations between childhood neglect and abuse and adult well-being is well-documented, e.g. in the Adverse Childhood Experiences studies. The aim of this NFR-funded project is to identify some decisive factors and mechanisms in different welfare state arrangements and child welfare systems that promote or hinder high quality decision-making in the best interest of children and families. Our focus in this complex and multi-faceted area is to explore decisions that supposedly are made in the child’s best interest, and we examine this cross-country by analyzing care order decisions on the one hand, and policy reforms, political principles and tools for guiding decision making, on the other.

The four involved countries; Norway, Finland, England and the U.S., all have public child welfare systems that are built on the principle of family preservation and the child’s best interest/welfare as standards in legislation concerning children. However, neither child welfare laws nor child welfare research provide clear answers for identifying when to intervene in a family, what services will help, and when the risk to a child is so great that one ought to remove the child from the care of her or his parent(s).

An analysis of the interaction between different settings (institutional, political and legal) and how they influence actual decision-making in the child welfare area yields new knowledge on strength and weaknesses in decision-making processes. A critical examination of the quality of decisions gives us insight into potentials for improvements in the system. To be able to evaluate successes and failures, and to understand why and how child welfare systems can provide children at risk with the necessary means to grow up as healthy individuals, it is important to analyze the explicit and implicit normative bases of different child welfare systems, especially their conception of the child’s best interest and what is valid knowledge.