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British Journal of Social Work (2011) 41, 11051121

doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcr009 Advance Access publication February 4, 2011

Race, Poverty and Child Protection Decision Making

Jacqueline Stokes* and Glen Schmidt
Jacqueline has worked in northern British Columbia for twenty-four years as a social worker in addictions and mental health. Her management responsibilities have occurred in child welfare and health authorities. She has taught at both the University of Northern British Columbia and the College of New Caledonia and is currently the Dean of the School of Academic Foundation and Human Services at the College of New Caledonia. Glen has worked as a social worker for over thirty-one years in the fields of child welfare, mental health, medical social work and social work education. His work has involved direct practice, as well as supervision and regional co-ordination of services. *Correspondence to Jacqueline Stokes, MSW, Ed.D., Dean School of Academic Foundation and Academic Services, College of New Caledonia, Prince George, BC, Canada, V2N 1P8. E-mail:

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Some ethnic and racial minority groups, as well as families living in poverty, are overrepresented in the child welfare system. It is important to understand how issues of socioeconomic status and race enter into child protection decisions. This research used a factorial survey method to look at the influence of race and poverty on child protection decision making. Participants were asked to make decisions about the severity of risk, service provision and the importance of a home visit on fictitious, but unique, vignettes in which the independent variables were randomly assigned. The finding was that race and poverty were not statistically significant in any of the decisions made. Rather, it was other factors of disadvantage, such as substandard housing, spousal violence and substance use, that impact decision making. A possible explanation for this finding is that child protection work with its reductionist and individualistic perspective obscures the context of peoples lives. The increasingly technocratic discourse in child protection blames individual parents and holds them responsible for not protecting their child from vulnerability, regardless of any historical and structural impediments they may face in attaining adequate resources. Keywords: Child welfare, factorial survey method, decision making

Accepted: January 2011

# The Author 2011. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved.

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Child protection is a difficult and complex area of social work practice. The work may involve matters of life and death, and the decisions made by social workers have a significant effect on the well-being of children and their families. Ostensibly, child protection legislation and the administration of the legislation apply to everyone within the jurisdictional area, but there is no question that some groups of people are more likely to be involved than others. Issues of race and poverty are factors that are disproportionately represented within child protection caseloads; however, little is known about how race and poverty influence decision making in practice. It is well documented that aboriginal children are grossly overrepresented within the Canadian child welfare system (Walmsley, 2005; Blackstock et al., 2004). The aboriginal population represents about 3.8 per cent of the total Canadian population and comprises First Nations (60 tis (33 per cent) (Statistics Canada, per cent), Inuit (4 per cent) and Me 2008). Some of the Canadian territories, such as Nunavut, have a majority aboriginal population (85 per cent) but the provincial numbers are lower, ranging from 1.3 per cent in Prince Edward Island to 15.5 per cent in Manitoba (Statistics Canada, 2006). However, according to the major nationwide Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect conducted in 2003, the total number of cases of substantiated child maltreatment in Canada involving children of aboriginal heritage was 15 per cent, or about 15,000 cases. Of those cases, 10 per cent involved children tis children and 1 per with First Nations status, 2 per cent involved Me cent involved Inuit children (CIS-2003). In the western-most Canadian province of British Columbia (BC), aboriginal people represent 4.8 per cent of the provincial population (Statistics Canada, 2006). However, similar to the national data, aboriginal children are disproportionately represented among children in care. About one in 100 BC children are in provincial care, although the rate for aboriginal children in BC is one in twenty (British Columbia, 2007). Despite awareness of the overrepresentation of aboriginal children in care, and multiple organisational changes to mitigate this, the percentage and total numbers of aboriginal children in care have continued to increase while the number of non-aboriginal children in care in BC has gone down (Foster, 2007). Foster (2007) states that in 2006, aboriginal children in BC were more than nine times more likely to be in care relative to a non-aboriginal child (Foster, 2007, p. 57). A plethora of research has considered how the effects of colonisation have contributed to the overrepresentation of aboriginal children in Canadian child protection. The mandatory residential school system for Status Aboriginal children, funded and sponsored by the Canadian government and run by various religious bodies, oversaw the separation of aboriginal children from their parents for many months during the calendar year.

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This experience traumatised many children and families, and parents were deprived of opportunities to develop positive parenting skills (Kundouqk and Qwulsihyahmaht, 2009, p. 34). Blackstock et al. (2004) speculate that in addition to the effects of colonisation, the disparity of aboriginal children in care may be due to factors such as poverty, poor housing and substance misuse. The reasons for the disparity are complex and as Walmsley (2005) states, the nature of child welfare practice as it relates to aboriginal children in Canada is essentially unknown (Walmsley, 2005, p. 3). The overrepresentation in child welfare caseloads of aboriginal children, or children from a minority race, is not exclusive to Canada. Carter (2010) noted the overrepresentation of American Indian/Alaskan Native children, who account for 2 per cent of all children placed in out-of-home care in the USA, even though the group represent a mere 1 per cent of the American population. A similar overrepresentation occurs in Australia, where aboriginal children are referred to as the stolen generation, as many were forcibly removed from their families (Valentine and Gray, 2006). There is an implication that Australian Aboriginal children are in care because of their race and ethnicity. In the UK, Chand (2000) and, later, Chand and Thoburn (2006) found that black children and black families were overrepresented in child protection work. Similarly, in the USA, a number of studies have looked at the high number of African American children in the care of child welfare authorities (Harris and Hackett, 2008; Magruder and Shaw, 2008; Rivaux et al., 2009). Much has also been written about the relationship between socioeconomic status and child abuse and neglect. It is well documented that children from poor families are overrepresented in the child welfare system (Jonson-Reid et al., 2009). In Canada, 24 per cent of the cases of substantiated maltreatment involve children whose household income is primarily derived from government benefits such as employment insurance and social assistance, while 12 per cent are in families that have income from part-time/seasonal employment and 7 per cent have income from either unknown or unreliable sources (CIS-2003). Wharf (2007) argues that Canadian child welfare clients are disproportionally represented in poverty statistics and contends that the single most powerful way to improve child welfare is to eliminate poverty among children and families (Wharf, 2007, p. 229). Poverty is an important factor in child protection caseloads in other countries as well. Spencer and Baldwin (2005), in their discussion of ecological factors in child abuse and neglect in the UK, identify the strong correlation between poverty, low income and child maltreatment. They referred to a study by Thoburn et al. (2000), who found that 57 per cent of children in their sample had no wage-earner in the household. In the USA, researchers, such as Drake et al. (2009), in their analysis of the child welfare data in Missouri, found that the critical variable for children coming into care was poverty and not race. Carter and Myers (2007),

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referring to the Third National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS-3) in the USA, found that children from families earning less than $15,000 per year were twenty-two times more likely to experience an incidence of child maltreatment than those with incomes above that level. While poverty as a factor within child protection caseloads is clear, what is less clear is whether this is due to poor children suffering higher incidences of maltreatment or whether the system or individual social workers are biased in their decision making. Descriptions of child maltreatment caseloads and evaluations of the organisation of child protection services are plentiful in the child welfare literature; however, knowledge about the practice of child protection and how social workers make these decisions is limited, at best. Authors such as Walmsley (2005) argue that there is a moral or normative dimension to child protection decision making; others such as Lindsey (1992) argue that the decision making is fundamentally moral. Given the overrepresentation of children from minority groups and the preponderance of children, both aboriginal and non-aboriginal, whose families live in poverty in child welfare, it is important to try and understand more about how the factors of race and poverty affect decision making.

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The study
Stokes (2009) examined child protection decision making as a component of her doctoral dissertation. This research used a factorial survey method to look at the influence of a wide range of factors on decision making. Of particular interest, given their dominance in the literature, were the two factors of race and poverty. The factorial survey method, first developed by Rossi and Anderson (1982a), combines both experimental and survey design (Lauder et al., 2006; Landsman and Copps Hartley, 2007). It is a hybrid technique that is an excellent method for studying peoples perceptions, beliefs, judgements and decisions that are associated with complex multidimensional phenomena (Ludwick et al., 2004; Shlay et al., 2005; Jasso, 2006). The power of the factorial survey design lies in the ability to examine normative beliefs of a group about a concept, judgment, or a decision, but unlike the real world, the independent variables are virtually uncorrelated in the factorial survey (Ludwick et al., 2004, p. 227). In a factorial survey, respondents are presented with contrived hypothetical situations, called vignettes, of a constructed world in which specific factors, or stimuli, are built in experimentally or randomly manipulated by the researcher (Hox et al., 1991; Ganong and Coleman, 2006). The development of the vignette, which reflects a logical situation in everyday practice, is critical to the design and to the face validity of the research. By developing a vignette that simulates information that child protection workers typically receive in everyday

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Figure 1 Vignette framework

practice, there is a research opportunity to test the causal judgement of child protection workers in the real world, while providing the validity of a scientific experiment. As the factorial survey technique measures the value of the individual attributes that contribute to a summative judgment (Shlay et al., 2005, p. 396), it is possible to look specifically at how factors of race and poverty might influence the decision making process in child protection situations. In the larger study, each vignette or story contained eight independent variables, or dimensions, as they are referred to in the methodological literature, which were: type of harm, income, culture, housing, substance use, spousal violence, resources and supports, and co-operation. These dimensions were developed from the literature and were included for their relevance and representation in child protection situations. The vignette framework that emerged is seen in Figure 1. Each independent variable was then assigned a series of levels that are specific values within the dimension. For example, type of harm is a dimension. Descriptors of neglect, physical harm, emotional harm and sexual abuse are individual levels of the dimension type of harm. The levels for the dimension of poverty/income were have no known source of income, are on income assistance, are relying on one minimum wage job and both have jobs, and, for race, Caucasian and Aboriginal. The wording of each of the levels of the other dimensions is in Table 1. After the vignette structure, the independent variables and the dependent variables were developed, a computer program was developed at the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) to randomly assign the levels of each dimension. The Ministry for Children and Family Development (MCFD) is the government body charged with the statutory obligations to carry out child protection in BC and all social workers authorised to carry out child protection investigations receive their delegation (approval) from this Ministry. Three senior MCFD child protection experts reviewed the vignettes for relevance and the research instrument was tested using three teams in northern BC. Debriefing sessions were held with the team leaders and comments were received from the respondents. Some modifications were made and the results from the pilot test were not used. A sample of one of the resulting 32,798 possible unique vignettes is represented in Figure 2.

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Table 1 Description of vignette dimensions, levels and level wording Dimension and level Harm to child Neglect Level wording

Physical harm

Emotional harm

Sexual abuse Income No known income Income assistance One minimum job Two jobs Housing Good repair but messy

Has been attending school with no lunch, without breakfast and often seems tired and lethargic; she has few clothes and no winter coat and is often cold Has been seen at school with bruises on her cheek and upper arm, she has reported to the school that her father has pushed her against the wall and hit her with his hand Has been withdrawing from the other children at school and is very quiet in class, she has disclosed that she is embarrassed because she has nightmares and often wets her bed Has reported that her father shows her pornographic materials and has exposed his genitals to her Have no known source of income Are on income assistance Are relying on one minimum-wage job Both have jobs

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A well-kept home in good repair, although it is messy, with food left lying around Inadequate heating in winter An apartment that has inadequate heating throughout the winter Poorly maintained A house which is poorly maintained with numerous broken windows, open electrical outlets and evidence of animal waste inside the house Eviction notice A small one-bedroom apartment, although the parents have received an eviction notice Culture Caucasian Caucasian Aboriginal Aboriginal Substance use No problem use Are known to use alcohol but without any problems Occasional misuse Have occasional weekend benders which has sometimes led to problems Regular abuse Are known to abuse alcohol and marijuana on a regular basis Serious problem Are known to have a serious problem with drug abuse Spousal violence Loud arguments Her parents often have loud arguments Yelling, threatening and Her father is often yelling, threatening and controlling her mother controlling Hitting and shoving She has seen her father hit and shove her mother Police attending The police are often at her house due to domestic disputes Resources and supports Good connections Has some connections to a church community and good connections with family close by Supportive family Has a supportive family, but they do not live close by Little support Has little consistent, or reliable, support from friends or family members Ongoing conflict Has ongoing conflict with extended family and are alienated from friends and neighbours Co-operation Some follow through Had ambivalence about change and often missed appointments but has some follow through to services offered Sporadic attendance Gone to services offered but only attended sporadically and received little to no benefit Non-attendance Accepted referrals in the past but either dont attend or attend once Refusal Refused to accept any services offered

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Figure 2 Sample vignette

In real life, it is often difficult to disentangle the influence of one factor as opposed to another if the two factors occur together regularly because their presence is related to each other (Taylor, 2006). For example, in child protection practice, issues of poverty and housing are often related to each other. When factors like these occur in association with each other, it is known as collinear or non-orthogonal (Taylor, 2006). In the factorial survey method, because the levels of the dimensions are randomly assigned to the vignette, the variables within the vignette are independent from each other and are therefore independent of, or orthogonal from, each other (Ludwick et al., 2004). This allows the researcher to assess the value of each independent variable in terms of its statistical relevance in the decision making. The primary task of social workers in child protection investigations is to assess a childs safety and decide whether to support the family through the provision of services or to remove the child from his or her home. In BC, similar to other jurisdictions, a risk assessment model has become central to child protection decision making and all child protection social workers receive risk assessment training. Therefore, in this research, attention was paid to aligning the levels and wording of the vignette with the descriptors in the BC risk assessment training manual. The questions, or dependent variables, in the research were based on typical decisions that child protection social workers are asked to make using the risk assessment model. Three dependent variables were measured (Figure 3). The first asked the social worker to assess the risk to the child, the second asked the social worker to identify the service provision they would provide and the third asked about the importance of a home visit.

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Participants and procedure

After ethics approval was received, all MCFD social workers received an e-mail invitation to participate in this research. Once respondents agreed to participate, they received the informed consent material and three randomly assigned unique vignettes. In total, there were 118 respondents. The majority of respondents (81 per cent) were female, with the largest single age group being between the ages

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Figure 3 Questions or dependent variables

of thirty-five and forty-four (30 per cent). All respondents had a minimum bachelors degree, mostly in either Social Work or Child and Youth Care. Seventy per cent of respondents had one of these two degrees. The participants had a great deal of experience. The majority (68 per cent) had six or more years of experience in child protection and one-third identified additional experience in community or clinical work for six or more years. The majority had specific training in risk assessment (94 per cent), child abuse (88 per cent) and cultural sensitivity training (72 per cent).

Data analysis
In conventional survey research, the sample size is determined by the number of participants in the study and researchers are interested in variations across the respondents. However, in factorial surveys the unit of

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analysis is the vignette, not the participant, and the researcher is interested in the variation across vignettes (Shlay et al., 2005, p. 402). In this research, each respondent was provided with up to three randomly assigned vignettes. Not all respondents answered all three. In total, the 118 participants responded to a total of 327 unique vignettes, thus the sample size or n 327. Based on the original work of Rossi and Anderson (1982b), the main statistical technique used for data analysis of the effects of the vignette dimensions on the three dependent variables was multiple regression. All of the independent variables were treated in analysis as being categorical. Dummy coding was assigned to each level of each dimension in order to estimate the effect that each level of the categorical variable had on the three dependent variables.

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The probit model for multiple regression and Anova were used to examine the effect of the vignette dimension on the child protection workers decisions. The R 2 for the model was 0.4791 and the adjusted R 2 was 0.5327. The R2 statistic is the percentage of variance in the dependent variable explained by the independent variable (Lauder et al., 2006). This model indicates a 53 per cent improvement in the fit of the model with the independent variables versus a model with only an intercept. The coefficients that emerged from the multiple regression analysis revealed that, of the eight dimensions, five had at least one level with a statistically significant influence on the risk decision (harm to child, housing, substance use, spousal violence and co-operation); two dimensions had at least one level that had a statistical influence on service provision (harm to child and housing); and two dimensions (housing and co-operation) had at least one level with a statistical effect on the decision about home visits. Table 2 presents the regression model demonstrating the statistically significant relationship between the variables and the decisions. The central focus of this paper is to look at how issues of race and poverty affected decision making. The finding was that race and poverty were not statistically significant in any of the decisions made. This was somewhat surprising given the literature that identifies the overrepresentation of aboriginal children and children in poverty on child protection caseloads. In this research, it was the factors of harm to child, housing, substance use, spousal violence and co-operation that had at least one level that had a statistically reliable effect on at least one of the decisions. It should be reiterated that while these factors may be highly correlated with poverty in real-life practice, the strength of the factorial survey method is that because of the random assignment of the levels of these dimensions, they are independent or orthogonal from each other in the vignette design.

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Table 2 Risk assessment Risk level DF Harm to child Income Housing Culture Substance use Spousal violence Resources and support Co-operation 3 3 3 1 3 3 3 3 Chi-square 104.9815 0.9637 7.8432 0.5535 15.8904 11.6193 5.2473 13.8582 P-value , 0.0001 0.81 0.0494 0.4569 0.0012 0.0088 0.1546 0.0035 Service provision Chi-square 102.7891 1.0068 15.3132 1.2217 1.5665 3.158 0.4692 7.5998 P-value , 0.0001 0.7996 0.0016 0.269 0.1347 0.3679 0.9256 0.055 Visit importance Chi-square 4.0804 2.4617 11.8114 1.5219 10.3262 0.399 4.3708 3.745 P-value 0.2529 0.4823 0.0081 0.2173 0.0167 0.94505 0.2241 0.2903

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Notably, the dimension of resources and supports also had no statistical effect on any of the decisions. The first statistical analysis model examined the impact of each dimension on the decision making but did not provide an indicator of the level within the dimension that had statistical reliability. In order to understand which level of a dimension had statistical reliability on the decision making, a second regression model was computed. The second model also used a cumulative probit regression. However, a difficulty with the probit model is that the interpretation of the coefficients in probit regression is not as straightforward as the interpretation of coefficients in linear regression or logit regression. In the probit model, the increase in probability attributed to a one-unit increase in a given predictor is dependent both on the values of the other predictors and the starting value of the given predictors (UCLA, n.d.); therefore, the probit transformation is the inverse of the cumulative standard normal distribution function to the response proportion (SPSS). This effectively reverses the beta coefficient. However, the model does identify which level of the independent variable is statistically reliable (p , 0.05) on the decision, as well as the inverse directionality of the effect. The resulting regression coefficient (B) expresses the extent to which decisions are affected by the presence of a particular level that is being rated compared to the omitted level. In order to avoid perfect collinearity, one level is omitted from the equation (Landsman and Copps Hartley, 2007). Thus, the first regression coefficient in Table 3 states that when level 2 (poorly maintained with evidence of animal waste) of the dimension housing is present, the rating of risk is 0.4171, which raises the risk rating by 0.41 compared to when the omitted level (good repair but messy) was present. Furthermore, this finding was statistically significant. In short, when assessing risk, regardless of which other levels of other dimensions are included, when the descriptor of housing is a house which is poorly maintained with numerous broken windows, open electrical outlets and evidence of animal waste inside the house and is included in the vignette, the risk rating is increased and this is a statistically reliable effect.

Table 3 Cumulative probit regression of significant dimensions and levels Risk decision Variable B Housing:1 Poorly maintained Substance use:2 Occasional misuse Substance use: Regular abuse Substance use Serious problem Spousal violence3 Hitting and shoving Omitted level. 1 Good repair but messy. 2 No problem use. 3 Loud arguments. 2 0.4171 2 0.4929 2 0.4629 2 0.7978 2 0.517 SE 0.1945 0.2088 0.2182 0.2002 0.1988 Pr . Chi Sq 0.032 0.0183 0.0339 , 0.0001 0.0093 2 0.6655 2 0.4895 0.243 0.2182 0.0062 0.0249 B 2 0.8845 SE 0.3329 Pr . Chi Sq 0.0079 B 2 0.59 SE 0.2209 Pr . Chi Sq 0.0076 Service provision Home visit decision

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Table 3 presents the level and the directionality (inverse due to the probit model) for each level in the vignette that was statistically significant (p , 0.05). Only the dimensions of housing, substance use and spousal violence, which are risk factors often associated with race and poverty, have been considered further here. Housing and, in particular, when housing was described as a house which is poorly maintained with numerous broken windows, open electrical outlets and evidence of animal waste inside the house was the level on each of the three dependent variables that heightened the risk assessment, increased the intensiveness of the service provision and the importance of a home visit. Spousal violence, as a dimension, had a statistically reliable effect only on the dependent variable of risk. The probit regression model identified that it was when the child has seen her father hit and shove her mother that was statistically significant and the risk assessment increased. Any problem substance use that was present in the vignette had an effect on the decision about risk. However, the descriptor of substance abuse did not statistically affect the decision about service intervention.

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The overrepresentation of aboriginal and poor children in child protection caseloads has been well documented and described earlier. This research that considered which factors about a case situation influenced decision making suggests that neither race nor poverty, as factors, have a statistical effect on decision making. However, it is other factors of disadvantage such as substandard housing, spousal violence and substance use that emerged, in this research, as significant in child protection decision making. This et al. (2004) argued finding supports the conclusions of others. Trocme that child protection decision making was less influenced by ethno-racial status than by the higher rates of socio-economic disadvantage and the consequent disproportionate presence of risk factors that aboriginal people face in Canada. Moraes et al. (2005) found that poverty was not the influencing factor in child protection decision making. In physical punishment cases, Moraes et al. (2005) reported, it was the childs overall safety rather than the familys poverty status that was taken into consideration. Jonson-Reid et al. (2009) concluded that while there is an overrepresentation of poor children in the system, this derives from increased levels of risk and not from a bias that is class-based. In addition to the harm factor, other explanations for the linkage between poverty and child maltreatment have been that it is the correlates of poverty, such as poor housing conditions, fewer community resources and parenting stress, rather than poverty per se that contribute to increased child protection involvement (Moraes et al., 2005).

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In this research, the indicators of that disadvantage were unsafe housing, substance use and spousal violence. Existing research in child protection associates these factors with situations that are common when child safety is assessed as being at risk. For example, DeRoma et al. (2006) found that the most important issues in decisions about removal were the condition, security and stability of housing. Similarly, the Canadian Incidence Study(CIS-1998) found housing to be a key factor in child welfare decisions, and futhermore when housing conditions were found to be unsafe, the child protection investigation resulted is a substantiation of , maltreament in 65 per cent of those situations. (McKenzie and Trocme 2003). Many studies and reports have recognised that substance abuse is a critical factor in the families involved with the child welfare system (Semidei et al., 2001; Landsman and Copps Hartley, 2007; Howell, 2008). Howell (2008) states that in the USA, children of substance abusing parents have become the largest group entering the child welfare system (Howell, 2008, p. 295). Domestic violence, in recent years, has received increasing attention in the child welfare literature as the awareness of the harmful effects on children of exposure to domestic violence has increased. In the Canadian Incidence Study (CIS, 1998), emotional maltreatment was noted in 37 per cent of substantiated child maltreatment, with exposure to spousal violence being the most frequently documented form in the cat et al., 2003, p. 1431) and the Landsman and Copps egory (Trocme Hartley (2007) study found that domestic violence appeared to heighten workers assessments of responsibility for child maltreatment and concerns about child safety (Landsman and Copps Hartley, 2007, p. 445). Explaining the relationship between race, poverty and child welfare is not simple. On the one hand, in Canada, aboriginal children and children in poverty are overrepresented in the child welfare system; on the other hand, the decision making literature and this research indicate that racial and socio-economic factors are not influential in decision making. Cradock (2004) puts forward a plausible explanation for this finding. He examines the narrowing of the concept of child welfare and argues that child welfare, which has a universal connotation related to ensuring children have access to minimal material and social conditions, has shifted to a individual focus on a particular population of vulnerable children whose safety is at risk. The broader structural child welfare concern, in which it is the states responsibility to ensure adequate education, nutrition and housing, becomes invisible once a child is deemed to warrant protection. A factor that compounds this narrowing of the concept of child welfare has been the implementation of risk assessment tools in most Western jurisdictions. The risk assessment tool provides a quantitative assessment that translates the child and families experiences into expert knowledge by extracting specific risk indicators out of the circumstances of the child and familys life (Brown, 2006). It purports to give the state

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a means of determining which parents are sources of danger to their own children (Cradock, 2004, p. 317). When children are not safe, the contemporary neo-liberal perspective is that it is due to a failing by the parent. The discourse is no longer about whether the provision of the core conditions of health, education and safety are accessible to the parents; rather, it is about the parents responsibility for ensuring their children have them. Individual parents become responsible for their own inadequacy to protect their child from vulnerability regardless of any impediments the parents themselves may have in attaining them. Technocratic tools, such as the risk assessment tool, further entrench the invisibility of the structural issues, such as poverty, inability to maintain stable housing or belonging to a marginalised group. As Anglin (2002) identifies, a serious consequence of the risk focus has been neglect of the fact that children in need of protection are also children in need (Anglin, 2002, p. 246). This research has highlighted that process in decision making. Despite child protections overwhelming involvement with children living in poverty and who are aboriginal, these structural issues were not considered influential factors in any decisions the social workers made in this study. The factors in this research that did affect child protection decision making were those that are often seen as being within the purview of the individual to change, namely unsafe housing, substance use and spousal violence. While a limitation of this research is that there is no way of knowing whether these factors would have been explored more within a broader psycho-social context in actual practice, what is clear from this research is that these factors did have a statistically reliable influence on decision making whereas the dimensions of race and poverty did not. In this research, the social context of peoples lives is made invisible in the technical instrumentality of identifying individual parents failures (to provide adequate housing, to not abuse substances and to live in non-violent situations), which is translated to child risk. Structural social work theory considers the external forces that are instrumental in creating poverty; however, child protection interventions are targeted towards the individual with the expectation that they are to make the best of a difficult situation (Russell et al., 2008). Similarly, the cultural and historical issues for aboriginal people such as colonisation and residential schools are obscured in the assessment process, at least in part due to limitations in the risk assessment tool that transforms social and structural problems into individual problems (Strega, 2009).

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A major problem in research in child welfare is that everyday practice is much more complex than most research methodologies can manage. The

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benefit of the factorial survey method is that through the construction of the vignettes, the messy and complicated real world of practice can be replicated and the multi-collinearity of factors can be removed. A major finding of this study was that there was no statistical evidence that the factors of race and income influenced decision making about either childrens safety risk or service delivery to the family. Instead, it was the factors of housing, spousal violence and substance abuse that social workers took into consideration in their decision making. This finding is promising from the perspective that any perceived class or race bias from the social workers perspective is not supported. However, from a structural social work perspective, it supports the argument that child protection in general, and risk assessment models in particular, have narrowed the child welfare discourse to one that emphasises blame on individual behaviour. In order to balance the issues of risk and need in childrens lives, the balance between child protection and child welfare may need another look. Relying primarily on reductionist risk assessment models, without the ability to consider more structural root causes and provide some amelioration for those conditions, obscures the context of peoples lives in child protection decision making.

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