A Cross-Country Comparison of Child Welfare Systems and Workers’ Responses to Children Appearing to be at Risk or in Need of Help

Written by Jill Berrick, Jonathan Dickens, Tarja Pösö and Marit Skivenes (2017)

Published in Child Abuse Review (2017).

This paper compares how frontline staff in four national child welfare systems and policy contexts – Finland, Norway, England and the USA (specifically, California) – respond to questions about a scenario of possible harm to children. The countries have different child welfare systems that we anticipated would be reflected in the workers’ responses (n = 1027). The analysis shows differences and similarities between the systems, although often not in line with system expectations. There is also variation within the country samples. The study shows the complex interactions of individual and agency characteristics in addition to the role of proceduralised decision-making systems and professional discretion.

Key Practitioner Messages

  • Professional discretion differs.
  • Proceduralised and high threshold systems result in less variation between workers’ responses.
  • System categories do not seem to capture the nuances of frontline decision-making.