Worker attitudes found to have a significant effect on risk assessments and child placement recommendations

Date Published: 

Arad-Davidzon, B., & Benbenishty, R. (2008). The role of workers’ attitudes and parent and child wishes in protection workers’ assessments and recommendation regarding removal and reunification. Children and Youth Services Review, 30, 107-121.

Reviewed by: 
Sydney Duder

This study compared the effects of worker attitudes and parent and child wishes on workers’ risk assessments and placement recommendations. Subjects were 200 Israeli child protection workers, surveyed at their annual national conference. All had social work degrees (BA = 57.1%, MA = 42.9%). Three questionnaires were constructed for the study, to measure:

  1. Worker demographic and professional characteristics.
  2. Professional judgment. “Vignette questionnaires,” describing a case of a child at risk, first at home, and then after 2 years in foster care. Workers were asked to assess risk at each stage, and recommend appropriate intervention. To examine the effect of mother and child wishes, there were four versions of this vignette, with different information about mother’s attitude to removal and child’s attitude to reunification.
  3. Workers’ attitudes. Agreement with 45 statements, both positive and negative, covering five content areas (removal, reunification, optimal duration of out-of-home placement, perceived quality of residential and foster care).

Cluster analysis of attitude responses yielded two groups of workers: pro-removal (N = 122) and anti-removal (N = 78). No worker variables were significantly related to group membership, but there were significant differences between the groups in responses to the vignette questionnaire. The pro-removal group made higher risk assessments, and recommended removal significantly more than the anti-removal group. Workers in both groups tended not to recommend reunification after out-of-home care; unexpectedly, this was true even for workers who were initially against removal. Comparison of responses to vignette versions showed that neither mother’s consent to removal, nor child’s consent to reunification, had any significant effect on workers’ placement recommendations. The quality of worker judgments obviously has important implications for practice; the authors included a thorough review of these implications.

Methodological notes: 

The use of vignettes to study worker risk assessment and decision-making has the general advantage that it gives researchers complete control of the case data available. The corresponding disadvantage is that it is difficult to know how well responses to a hypothetical case would reflect actual practice decisions. The significant relationships found here, between worker attitudes and judgments about the vignette case, are hardly surprising, particularly as there appears to be some conceptual overlap between the instruments.

Specific research procedures were generally meticulous—almost excessively so. Half the sample received the vignette questionnaire before the attitudes questionnaire; the other half received the attitudes questionnaire first. Equal numbers of the four versions of the vignette questionnaire were distributed at random (N = 240), but since numbers returned were not equal, excess questionnaires were randomly removed to give equal numbers (N= 50) for each version. Statistical procedures were appropriate—for example, the use of cluster analysis, calculation of Cronbach’s α for the 5 attitude scales, and use of a 2 x 2 MANOVA (cluster x vignette version) to examine the relative effects of worker attitude and mother’s consent on placement recommendations. Findings certainly confirm that, faced with the same case, different workers may recommend very different interventions.