Professional Judgment, Practitioner Expertise and Organisational Culture in Child Protection: An Ethnographic Study

PhD Thesis

Whittaker, Andrew 2014. Professional Judgment, Practitioner Expertise and Organisational Culture in Child Protection: An Ethnographic Study. PhD Thesis University of East London Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust
AuthorsWhittaker, Andrew
TypePhD Thesis

Child protection social workers must make difficult decisions in real life circumstances that often involve limited knowledge, uncertainty, conflicting values, time pressures and powerful emotions. These circumstances can pose a significant challenge to reasoning skills, especially when the cost of errors and poor judgment can be unacceptably high. This study explores the psychological processes that underpin how child protection practitioners form judgments and how these are influenced by the organisational settings that they work within.
The study has an ethnographic design with two sites; a local authority children's intake service and a NHS multi-disciplinary court assessment service. The sites were chosen as contrasting organisational settings within which to study practitioner decision making. Forty days of observation and twenty-four interviews with practitioners were completed across the two sites over a two-and-a-half year period.
The study found that practitioners' reasoning processes were a dynamic interplay of intuitive and analytic processes with emotionally-informed intuitive processes as the primary driver. As practitioners became more experienced, they engaged in progressively more sophisticated pattern recognition and story building processes to analyse and evaluate complex information. However, practitioners of all experience levels were vulnerable to the same predictable errors arising from cognitive vulnerabilities that affect the whole population.
Comparison of the two sites identified the following themes concerning the influence of organisational context; the timescales that practitioners worked within, the opportunities for case discussion, and the cultures of accountability within the organisation. In response to considerable time pressures and increased demand, local authority social workers at times engaged in a range of operational defences and speed practices. This was combined with a pervasive accountability culture that inadvertently led to local authority social workers being more likely to manage anxiety through practices that acted as a form of pre-emptive exoneration.
The study contributes towards the existing literature by examining everyday child protection practice using a theoretical approach that combines insights from psychological and psychoanalytic approaches. The study identifies new insights into practitioner decision making, suggests new ways of understanding accountability, and has implications for how organisations can help both reduce errors and support expert practice.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Publication dates
PrintDec 2014
Publication process dates
Deposited03 Dec 2015
Publisher's version
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