Research Watch

Systematic review reveals weak evidence on the effectiveness of supervision in child welfare practice

Year of Publication
Reviewed By
Maria Garrick

Carpenter, J., Webb. M. C., & Bostock, L. (2013). The surprisingly weak evidence base for supervision: Findings from a systematic review of research in child welfare practice (2000-2012). Children and Youth Services Review, 35, 1843-1853.


This systematic review aimed to establish the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of supervision in child welfare as it relates to outcomes for children and families, staff, and organizations (such as child welfare and child protection services).

While there are limitations with this definition of supervision, there is some consensus on the functions of supervision practice. In this study, the primary functions of supervision include: administrative case management; education through reflecting on learning from practice; personal and emotional support; mediation, in which the supervisor acts as a bridge between the individual staff member and the organization; and professional development.

The current study searched related indexes, abstracts, and specialist journals to select studies based on strict inclusion criteria: 1) studies must show an association between the provision of supervision and outcomes for service users, workers and organizations, and 2) studies must have an intervention component. The researchers only included studies published between 2000 and 2012 and in English.

There were three stages in the selection process. At stage one, 690 studies were screened for inclusion and fifty studies were selected. At stage two, data from these studies were extracted. Thirty four studies were accepted and three dismissed due to poor analysis of the data. At stage three, studies that met inclusion criteria were critically appraised for trustworthiness (clarity, accuracy, transparency, validity, reliability and generalizability), appropriateness (fit of the research design with the research question), and topic relevance (applicability of the study for staff, organization and consumers). A final sample consisted of 21 studies was included for analysis after the three-stage selection process.

An analysis of the selected studies revealed that supervision practice, defined as “emphasizing learning from case work with a view to professional development”, was associated with positive but weak outcomes for workers (i.e., job satisfaction, self-efficacy, stress) and for organizations (i.e., job performance, workload management, turnover, retention and case analysis and planning). Of the 21 studies that met criteria for inclusion, none showed a strong relationship between the effectiveness of supervision and child welfare outcomes.

Methodological Notes

Most of these studies are cross-sectional. Therefore, it is not possible to infer a causal relationship between the provision of supervision and outcomes for workers and for organizations. Only one of the 21 studies focused on an intervention but, due to its poor research design, the outcome could not be generalized.

Further, none of the studies examined the link between supervision and outcomes for children and families (clients) or an evaluation of the cost-effectiveness of supervision. The authors asserted that while supervision practice was evident in child welfare, further evaluation of its effectiveness, cost and outcome for children and families was needed. Another limitation is that the studies included in the systematic review was done in the United States so there should be some caution when generalizing the results to the Canadian population.