The Competing Principles of Child Protection
Child protection can seem like an impossible task. Stories about social workers’ over- or underinvolvement typically come from parents or children who experienced a tragic injustice. Too often, accounts from the media characterize caseworkers as either biased baby snatchers or error-prone bureaucrats who miss red flags. And public officials sometimes contribute to misunderstandings of the field with admonitions to “just” keep kids safe. All this, of course, does little to help the public understand the complexity of the work, and it hardly invites those dedicated to children’s well-being to choose child welfare as a profession.
But efforts to protect children from harm are imperative in any society that cares about the safety of children. The measure of child welfare as right or wrong, therefore, may be misguided; perfect is irresponsible. Social workers should be judged first by their efforts to conduct principled practice.
What does it mean to practice by principle? Medical professionals have a straightforward principle that directs decision making: First, do no harm. It doesn’t tell doctors what skill or technique to use, but it sets a shared foundation for basic decision making. Of course, despite this principle, even well-meaning doctors sometimes get it wrong.
I suggest child welfare is guided by the following eight principles.
- Parents who care for their children safely should be free from government intrusion in their family.
- Children should be safe.
- Children should be raised with their family of origin.
- When children cannot live with family, they should live with extended relatives.
- Children should be raised in families.
- Children should have a sense of permanence—that the caregivers they live with will care for them permanently.
- Families’ cultural heritage should be respected.
- Parents and children (of a certain age and maturity) should have a say in the decisions that affect their lives.
These principles form the basis for child welfare professionals’ decision making. We prefer that children live with their parents rather than in foster care. We want children to live in families rather than in institutions. Yet child protection is not about swapping one arbitrary value for another. In caseworkers’ everyday lives, these principles are complicated to follow. Often, it’s hard to choose precisely because the principles compete with one another—not in rare, exceptional circumstances but in average cases that typify child welfare. For example, an earnest goal to keep a child with his family may conflict directly with substantial concern about his safety. A child may have an opportunity to pursue permanency, but what if the best permanency option separates her from her culture?
None of the principles is absolute; they are relative. No single principle will always prevail. In fact, great harm would result if caseworkers used the principles as a linear decision tree. Instead, child protection is a messy, complicated business. Too often, caseworkers do not have enough information, time, and resources to fully resolve problems that may be long-standing and complex. In this liminal space, caseworkers make challenging decisions to promote child protection and welfare. They do so using these principles as their guide.
Many staff are drawn to the field of child protection precisely because the work speaks to their fundamental values about children and families. But because the principles they attempt to follow are at odds, caseworkers regularly encounter situations that strain their moral compass. They regularly wonder what is gained and lost for children and families because of their choices. They’re lured into the false notion of right and wrong, and we wonder why problems of retention are endemic.
Reimagining child welfare in a principle-based framework allows us to shift conversations from blame to values, from simplicity to complexity. Embracing all the principles of child welfare recognizes the central task of navigating among competing principles and appropriately honors the sophisticated professional judgment required in the field.
Any decent society establishes a robust system to protect children from their parents’ or caregivers’ harm. The work is imperative. But assuming the task of child protection is simple misrepresents the tremendous difficulties of the work and relegates child protection to the impossible.
Jill Duerr Berrick, PhD, was a finalist in the 2019 Media for a Just Society Awards for her book The Impossible Imperative: Navigating the Competing Principles of Child Protection. She is the Zellerbach Family Foundation professor in the School of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research focuses on the relationship of the state to vulnerable families.