Introduction decisions on whether to remove a child from


Over the last two decades there have
been concerns around social workers decision-making abilities in mental health
and children services which have led to changes in policies and service
structure. Examples of this are held in the death of Victoria Climbe, where
changes were made in child protection such as the formation of Every Child
Matters programme – designed to improve the lives of children; and the
introduction of the Children Act 2004 – which have provided the legislative
base for many of the reforms (, 2018).

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When a public inquiry is carried out,
particular attention is always focus on social workers and the decisions they
have made; and many professionals are asked to defend procedural practice (Stokes
and Schmidt, 2012). However, less attention is given to the degree of
uncertainty social workers have to face when making decisions. Such as having
to make decisions on whether to remove a child from their family when
information is insufficient, unreliable, conflicting or at times missing
(Stokes and Schmidt, 2012).

Whilst there is a vast amount of
research and literature on child protection which offer theory to practice
(Stokes and Schmidt, 2012). Such
as Think child, think parent, think family which offers a conceptual framework for
social workers to use when working with parents who have mental health problems
and their family (SCIE, 2012).

There is minimal research on understanding
the decision-making process or how social workers make their decisions on
parental mental health and capacity. Therefore, the aim of this research study is
to examine how social
workers across both agencies (i.e. Adult Mental Health and Children and
Families) make decisions on parental mental health and capacity.

Literature Review

Decision?making has been defined as: ‘the act or process of choosing a preferred
option or course of action from a set of alternatives. It precedes and
underpins almost all deliberate or voluntary behaviour’ (Colman, 2006, p.

Rouf et al (2011,
p175) argues that ‘professionals are systematically biased in
their judgements and are influenced by emotion, framing and social factors’.
Although, they are encouraged through training to use their rational and
analytical skills in their decision making, this is not always utilised (Rouf
et al, 2011). Evidence of this, have been shown in Lamming and Munro’s report
where professionals have relied on inductive processes (i.e. previous
experience, intuition) when making their decisions, which have led to serious
implications in terms of a child safety and wellbeing (Rouf
et al, 2011).

Munro’s report (1999) found common
errors in social workers’ reasoning and decision?making, such as discounting evidence
that contradicts the professional’s view of the family (Rouf
et al, 2011). She argues ‘that there is
an interaction between internal mechanisms of decision?making and external
demands’ (Rouf et al,
2011, p175). For example, when an individual is faced with large volumes of
information, they sometimes take a mental shortcut. Especially if they are feeling
overwhelmed by the range of important information needed to assess a family (Rouf
et al, 2011).

With that being said research by Ling and Luker (2000) have found intuition
or gut feeling in the decision-making process can be positive and can lead to improvements
within decision?making. As
evidence in their study has shown that professionals’ feelings have helped to
alert them to child protection concerns (Rouf et al, 2011).

However, there are mixed findings about
this because professionals who are led by emotions are seen to be riskier in their
work (Rouf et al, 2011). A study done by Kelly and Milner (1996) found that professionals
who were led by emotions took more risks to preserve mother and child
relationship when there was certainty that the child would be removed. They
also noted that professionals in this situation were often face with deciding between
two imperfect and uncertain options, which made decision?making hard and complex (Rouf et al, 2011).

McConnell et al. (2006) examined the decision?making process in child protection cases
where parents had a disability (sensory, learning or mental illness); this
revealed professional judgement and actions were influence by ‘perceptions on neglect, parental compliance
within the child protection process, the fear of public criticism (which often
led to defensive practice) and pressure on resources’ (Rouf et al, 2011: p

Research Questions

Main question: How do social workers
from adult mental health and children and families make their decisions on parental
mental health and capacity

Sub questions:  

factors influence their professional judgement and actions?

does a parent’s mental health pose a risk to their child?


The primary aim of my research is to
explore how social workers within Adult Mental Health
and Children and Families make decisions on parental mental health and capacity.


To use
vignettes to examine what factors influence professionals’ judgments and actions,
when decisions are made on parental mental health and capacity.

To interview
five social workers from each agency i.e. Adult Mental and Children and
Families in the same borough.


In order to examine how social workers
in mental health and children and families make their decisions on parental
mental health and capacity, it is important that I use a research process that replicates
the circumstances of daily decision making (Stokes and Schmidt, 2012).

However, it is unethical and impossible
to assess decision-making process experimentally with social worker and service
user in their natural environment (Evans et al, 2015). Therefore, vignette methodology
may be the best way to examine how social workers in adult mental health and
children families make decisions on parental mental health and capacity.

According to Evans
et al (2015) the use of vignette-based methodologies can offer a unique way
to examine professional judgments and decision-making processes. This is
because vignette-based studies offer a
glimpse into how individuals’ thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and decisions are
affected by factors that may not be easily accessible in real-life situations
because of confounding sources of variability that cannot be controlled’ (Evans et al, 2015: p161).

there are some limitations in its construct and external validity, which needs
to be considered. For example, to what the extent can the written stimulus and
participants’ responses to it, accurately represent what is happening in the
“real world” (Evans et al, 2015). Critical
questions like this, need to be considered within the design and evaluation of the
study (Evans et al, 2015).

Ethical considerations

Since the research will involve interviewing
professionals from different agencies (i.e. adult mental health and children
and families) and using vignettes to examine their professional judgement and
actions when making decision on parental mental health and capacity.

It is important to consider that there
may be ethical issues when
conducting my research, therefore I aim to consider the following principles
held and supported by Beauchamp
and Childless (2001):

consent – participants will be free to make their own decisions about whether
they wish to participant in the study (either before or during process). Participants
will have the option to refuse or withdraw from study at any stage. Respect
will be given to participants in terms of consent and confidentiality.


Participants will be provided with an
information sheet which will explain the reasons for the research; their participation
is voluntary and they can withdraw from the interview process at any time without
giving a reason, and without fear of any consequences; their responses will be
kept anonymous in the thesis resulting from the research; and that any
subsequent publications that might arise or any information provided by them
will be kept confidential (Moore, 2016).


In addition, participants will be given
the options as to choose whether they like their responses to be recorded or
written down; and reassured that in either method, their details will remain anonymous
and protected using numeric code (Moore, 2016).


will not cause harm – since the research is examining people’s judgement and actions
when making decisions parental mental health and capacity, this might raise sensitive views or opinions; or recollections
and experiences that the participant might find upsetting (Moore, 2016).
Therefore, the participant has the option to withdraw from the interviewing
process at any stage.


If participants became noticeably
distressed during the interview process, then interview will be stopped, and the
participant will be given the opportunity to either to continue or to end the process
(Moore, 2016).


will benefit others – since there is no personal award gained from participating
in this study. Participant will be informed of this in the information sheet
and that benefits from this study may help improve training, assessment and
service provision in the interest of safeguarding children and supporting
vulnerable families.

Policy and practice implications

The professional judgments and decisions
made by social workers in mental health and children and families can have huge
implications for service users, their children and governments officials (Evans
et al, 2015). Therefore, examining what influences professional judgements and
actions when making decisions on parental mental health and capacity, can us provide
an insight into what enriches or hinders professionals’ decisions making. As
well as help improve training, assessment and service provision in the interest
of safeguarding children and supporting vulnerable families (Rouf, et al 2011).