Research on Reasoning and Bias in Child Welfare Decision-Making

Screen shot 2014-03-13 at 9.48.27 AMBy Ankita Mohanty

As a poor person of color, are you more likely to have your child taken away from you than your wealthier white counterpart?

Research out of Israel published earlier this year points to something long understood in American child welfare: race matters.

Researchers Guy Enosh at the University of Haifa and Tali Bayer-Topilsky at Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute delved into the complex world of decision-making in Israel’s child welfare system, and came back with alarming results.

Published in the British Journal of Social Work in January, their study shows that in ambiguous-risk cases, children with minority ethnic status, Mizrahi Jews originating from Asia and Africa, were two times as likely to be recommended for removal from their homes than those with majority ethnic status, Ashkenazi Jews originating from Europe and America.

What’s more, children from poor families were six times as likely to be removed from their home than children at high risk from families identified as moderate to high in socioeconomic status (SES).

Enosh and Bayer-Topilsky utilized vignettes drawn from actual welfare files and experimentally manipulated them for level of risk, the family’s SES, and ethnicity. One hundred and five child case workers were then asked to evaluate the vignettes, assess level of risk, and decide whether to remove the child from the home. The research study is based on the dual-process theory, which names a decision-making system based in intuition that is most often used to navigate ambiguous information.

The caseworkers involved in this study were faced with ambiguous information and used their intuition. Their gut didn’t always lead them to the best decision.

Even though placement decisions are usually made by a group of social workers to help prevent individual biases from impacting the decision, research indicates that groups have a tendency to reach consensus, especially when group members are of the same professional background.

Often faced with ambiguous cases in real life, social workers must be able to identify which instincts to trust.

“A lot of good decision-making comes from intuition,” said Leela Munton, a first-year masters student in Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley. “Because we are the tool of our profession, we have to be reflective about our practices.”

Munton, who is pursuing a career in child welfare, believes a reflective practice, which requires practitioners to critically consider why they think and act in the ways they do, is key. However, when asked whether her masters program effectively integrates reflective practice into the curriculum, she hesitated.

“Not many students are willing to do that internal work because it is so uncomfortable,” Munton said. “To learn reflection, you need professors who value it and are willing to model it, and [whether we have] that varies. I do a lot of personal work around reflection, but it’s extracurricular.”

Ankita Mohanty is a masters student of social welfare at the University of California, Berkeley. She wrote this story as part of the Journalism for Social Change class.

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