“It's the Only System We've Got” Exploring Emergency Response Decision-Making in Child Welfare

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Victoria A. Copeland


Front-line public “Child Welfare” caseworkers, also known as emergency response or investigative caseworkers, play a significant role in the “Child Welfare” system. Placed in an intermediary role within the system, investigative caseworkers are tasked with making critical decisions while attempting to advocate for families and uphold the system’s policies. To understand the caseworker decision-making processes more in-depth, a qualitative study was conducted with eighteen investigative caseworkers in four different counties. The guiding research question of the current study was: “What impacts the decisionmaking processes in which child protective service workers investigate and substantiate referred cases of child maltreatment?” Findings revealed several nuances and extensive complexities in how workers navigated often contradictory roles within the system. Important emerging themes include caseworkers’ use of surveillance during investigation and multi-institution partnership in
decision-making processes. This Comment discusses the ways in which caseworkers react to and navigate ambiguity and parental resistance during investigations, lending an often-overlooked exploration into various nuances within the decision-making apparatus. Understanding nuances in the complex web of decision-making and information-gathering may lead to novel ways of thinking about how the “Child Welfare” system addresses child protection.

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How to Cite
Copeland, V. A. (2021). “It’s the Only System We’ve Got”: Exploring Emergency Response Decision-Making in Child Welfare. Columbia Journal of Race and Law, 11(3), 43–74. https://doi.org/10.52214/cjrl.v11i3.8740