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What factors predict social workers’ decision-making in child welfare?


Project Summary

Social workers in child welfare agencies play a vital role in investigating reports of alleged child abuse and neglect, and their decisions have widespread consequences on the communities they serve. We analyzed data from child maltreatment investigations to trace the disproportionate representation of Black and Hispanic families in the system and to understand how social workers’ on-the-job experience shapes their decision-making. We find that social workers’ decisions ameliorate the disproportionate representation of Black and Hispanic families, are stable in the face of workplace stressors, and move away from placing children in foster care as they gain experience.

Why is this issue important?

Child maltreatment investigators, like many public sector workers, have significant discretion over both punitive decisions and access to assistance. Social worker decisions can also ameliorate or perpetuate existing racial and ethnic disparities that feed into the child welfare system. On top of these challenges, social workers must often manage large workloads, unsafe environments, and contentious decisions with incredible fortitude. Understanding the different factors that influence social worker decision-making can inform how to better support social workers and ensure equity and fairness for the families they serve.

What are we doing?

We analyzed data from ten years of child maltreatment investigations in a mid-sized city. We measured the racial and ethnic composition of caseloads at each step of the investigation process. We then examined how child and investigator characteristics relate to investigation outcomes and investigators’ use of decision tools and interventions.

What have we learned?

We find that the racial disproportionality in the child welfare system largely originates from the composition of referrals that the system receives from the public. Social workers help to correct the overrepresentation of Black and Hispanic families through investigatory decisions. This is especially true of social workers investigating referrals for children whose race matches their own. We show social worker decision-making is remarkably stable in the face of workplace stressors, such as exposure to bad outcomes or workload. We also document evidence that more experienced social workers are more likely to find evidence of child maltreatment but no more likely to immediately intervene. More experienced social workers also demonstrate a higher propensity to override the agency’s structured decision tools in favor of less intervention.

What comes next?

This is an ongoing project. We are finalizing the analyses and in conversation with our collaborator about interpreting the results. These findings can then feed into more research on how to support social workers as they make difficult decisions.


2018 - Present


  • Administrative data analysis



Policy Area

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