Normative and Positive Social Work in the Context of the Placement Decision: A Defence of Social Workers


  • Charles Sutcliffe ICMA Centre, University of Reading
  • Kish Bhatti-Sinclair University of Chichester



Two fundamental questions for social work are considered: one normative and one positive. First, is it possible for social work practice to be based on an objective that maximises social welfare; and second, does social work practice actually conform to some objective, which may or may not maximise social welfare? These two questions are addressed in the context of one of the most important decisions made by social workers - the placement decision. It is argued that deriving a societal objective faces formidable theoretical problems, and that even if a well-defined criterion was available, actual social work decisions would still be inconsistent due to a lack of the requisite information and different interpretations of the available data. It is argued that the substantial empirical evidence from around the world on the placement decision provides little evidence of consistent decision making. This may be because the statistical analyses have lacked the data and techniques necessary to detect the underlying patterns, or because placement decisions are largely random. The apparent absence of clear objectives, either specified by society or accepted custom and practice, places social workers in a very difficult position, making them open to press criticism and victimization, even though they acted entirely competently.

Author Biography

Kish Bhatti-Sinclair, University of Chichester

Department of Childhood, Social Work and Social Care;


Andersen, S.H. (2010) A Good Place to Live? On Municipality Characteristics and Children’s Placement Risk, Social Services Review, vol. 84, no. 2, June, pp. 201-224.

Arrow, K.J. (1950) A Difficulty in the Concept of Social Welfare, Journal of Political Economy, vol. 8, no. 4, August, pp. 328-346.

Arrow, K.J. (1951) Social Choice and Individual Values, Wiley.

Ayre, P. (2001) Child Protection and the Media: Lessons from the Last Three Decades, British Journal of Social Work, vol. 31, no. 6, December, pp. 887-901.

Banach, M. (1998) The Best Interests of the Child: Decision-Making Factors, Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, vol. 79, no. 3, May-June, pp. 331-340.

Davidson-Arad, B. and Benbenishty, R. (2008) The Role of Workers’ Attitudes and Parent and Child Wishes in Child Protection Workers’ Assessments and Recommendation Regarding Removal and Reunification, Children and Youth Services Review, vol. 30, no. 1, January, pp. 107-121.

Davidson-Arad, B. and Benbenishty, R. (2010) Contribution of Child Protection Workers’ Attitudes to their Risk Assessments and Intervention Recommendations: A Study in Israel, Health and Social Care in the Community, vol. 18, no. 1, January, pp. 1-9.

Bergson, A. (1938) Reformulation of Certain Aspects of Welfare Economics, Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. 52, no. 2, February, pp. 310-334

Bhatti-Sinclair, K. and Sutcliffe, C. (2012) What Determines the Out-of-Home Placement of Children in the USA?, Children and Youth Services Review, vol. 34, no. 9, September, pp. 1749-1755.

Bhatti-Sinclair, K. and Sutcliffe, C. (2013) Challenges in Identifying Factors Which Determine the Placement of Children in Care? An International Review, Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, vol.30, no. 4, August 2013, pp. 345-363,

Breiman, L. (2001) Random Forests, Machine Learning, vol. 45, no. 1, October, pp. 5-32.

Britner, P.A. and Mossler, D.G. (2002) Professionals’ Decision-Making About Out-of-Home Placements Following Instances of Child Abuse, Child Abuse and Neglect, vol. 26, no. 4, April, pp. 317-332.

Charlow, A. (1987) Awarding Custody: The Best Interests of the Child and Other Fictions, Yale Law and Policy Review, vol. 5, no. 2, Spring-Summer, pp. 267-290.

Curtis, C.M. and Alexander, R. (2010) Correlates of African American Children In and Out of Their Families, Families in Society, vol. 91, no. 1, January-March, pp. 85-90.

Delfabbro, P.H., Barber, J.G. ad Cooper, L. (2002) Children Entering Out-of-Home Care in South Australia: Baseline Analyses for a 3-Year Longitudinal Study, Children and Youth Services Review, vol. 24, no. 12, December, pp. 917-932.

Doyle, J.J. (2008) Child Protection and Adult Crime: Using Investigator Assignment to Estimate Causal Effects of Foster Care, Journal of Political Economy, vol. 116, no. 4, August, pp. 746-770.

Elsley, S. (2010) Media Coverage of Child Deaths in the UK: The Impact of Baby P: A Case of Influence?, Briefing no. 8, University of Edinburgh/NSPCC, June.

Elster, J. (1987) Solomonic Judgements: Against the Best Interest of the Child, University of Chicago Law School, vol. 54, no. 2, Winter, pp. 1-45.

Fanshel, D. (1981) Decision Making Under Uncertainty: Foster Care for Abused or Neglected Children?, American Journal of Public Health, vol. 71, no. 7, July, pp. 685-686.

Franklin, B. (1989) Wimps and Bullies: Press Reporting of Child Abuse. In Social Work and Social Welfare, edited by P. Carter, T. Jeffs and M. Smith, Open University Press, pp. 1-14.

Franklin, B. and Parton, N. (2001) Press Ganged! Media Reporting of Social Work and Child Abuse. In Understanding Social Problems - Issues in Social Policy, edited by M. May, R. Page and E. Brunsdon, Blackwell, pp. 233-247.

Fry, A. (1991) Reporting Social Work: A View from the Newsroom. In Social Work, the Media and Public Relations, edited by B. Franklin and N. Parton, Routledge, pp. 63-75.

Fanshel, D. and Shinn, E. (1978) Children in Foster Care: A Longitudinal Investigation, Columbia University Press.

Freeman, M. (2007) Article 3. The Best Interests of the Child. In A Commentary on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, edited by A. Allen, J.V. Lanotte, E. Verhellen, F. Ang, E. Berghmans and M. Verheyde, Martinus Nijhoff, 79 pages.

Freisthaler, B., Gruenwald, P.J., Remer, L.G., Lery, B. and Needell, B. (2007) Exploring the Spatial Dynamics of Alcohol Outlets and Child Protective Services Referrals, Substantiations and Foster Care Entries, Child Maltreatment, vol. 12, no. 2, May, pp. 114-124.

Galilee, J. (2006) Literature Review on Media Representations of Social Work and Social Workers, Scottish Executive, 16pages.

Harris, N. (1987) Defensive Social Work, British Journal of Social Work, vol. 17, no. 1, February, pp. 61-69.

HM Government (2018) Working Together to Safeguard Children: A Guide to Inter-agency Working to Safeguard and Promote the Welfare of Children, July.

Hiilamo, H. (2009) What Could Explain the Dramatic Rise in Out-of-Home Placement in Finland in the 1990s and Early 2000s?, Children and Youth Services Review, vol. 31, no. 2, February, pp. 177-184.

Hollis, M. and Howe, D. (1987) Moral Risks in Social Work, Journal of Applied Philosophy, vol. 4, no. 2, October, pp. 123-133.

Jack, G. and Donnellan, H. (2013) Social Work with Children, Palgrave.

Kang, H.A. and Poertner, J. (2006) Inter-Rater Reliability of the Illinois Structured Decision Support Protocol, Child Abuse and Neglect, vol. 30, no. 6, June, pp. 679-689.

Keddell, E. (2017) Comparing Risk-Averse and Risk-Friendly Practitioners in Child Welfare Decision-Making: A Mixed Methods Study, Journal of Social Work Practice, vol. 31, no. 4, pp. 411-429.

Kelly, J. (1997) The Best Interests of the Child: A Concept in Search of Meaning, Family and Conciliation Courts Review, vol. 35, no. 4, October, pp. 377-387.

Lery, B. (2009) Neighbourhood Structure and Foster Care Entry Risk: The Role of Spatial Scale in Defining Neighbourhoods, Children and Youth Services Review, vol. 31, no. 3, March, pp. 331-337.

Lindsey, D. (2004) The Welfare of Children, Oxford University Press, Second edition, ch. 6.

MacDonald, G. (1990) Allocating Blame in Social Work, British Journal of Social Work, vol. 20, no. 6, December, pp. 525-546.

McDonald, T.P., Poertner, J. and Harris, G. (2001) Predicting Placement in Foster Care: A Comparison of Logistic Regression and Neural Network Analysis, Journal of Social Service Research, vol. 28, no. 2, pp. 1-20.

Menard, S. (2010) Logistic Regression: From Introductory to Advanced Concepts and Applications, Sage.

Mnookin, R. H. (1975) Child-Custody Adjudication: Judicial Functions in the Face of Indeterminacy, Law and Contemporary Problems, vol. 39, no. 3, Summer, pp. 226-293.

Munro, E. (2011) The Munro Review of Child Protection: Final Report, Department for Education, 173 pages.

Nisbett, R. and Ross, L. (1980) Human Inference: Strategies and Shortcomings of Social Judgement, Prentice-Hall Inc.

Owen, G. (1995) Game Theory, Third edition, Academic Press.

Parker, S. (1994) The Best Interests of the Child - Principles and Problems, International Journal of Law and the Family, vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 26-41.

Phillips, M.H., Shyne, A.W., Sherman, E.A. and Harding, B.L. (1971) Factors Associated With Placement Decisions in Child Welfare, Child Welfare League of America.

Rapp, C.A. (1982) Effect of the Availability of Family Support Services on Decisions About Child Placement, Social Work Research and Abstracts, vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 21-27.

Rawls, J. (1999) A Theory of Justice, Second edition, Oxford University Press.

Reid, W.J. and Misener, E. (2001) Social Work in the Press: A Cross-national Study, International Journal of Social Work, vol. 10, no. 3, July, pp. 194-201.

Rossi, P.H., Schuerman, J, and Budde, S. (1999) Understanding Decisions About Child Maltreatment, Evaluation Review, vol. 23, no. 6, December, pp. 579-598.

Runyan, D.K., Gould, C.L., Trost, D.C. and Loda, F.A. (1981) Determinants of Foster Care Placement for the Maltreated Child, American Journal of Public Health, vol. 71, no. 7, July, pp. 706-711.

Salter, E.K. (2012) Deciding for a Child: A Comprehensive Analysis of the Best Interest Standard, Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, vol. 33, no. 3, June, pp. 179-198.

Schuerman, J., Rossi, P.H. and Budde, S. (1999) Decisions on Placement and Family Preservation, Evaluation Review, vol. 23, no. 6, December, pp. 599-618.

Sen, A.K. (1970) Collective Choice and Social Welfare, Holden-Day.

Shlonsky, A. and Wagner, D. (2005) The Next Step: Integrating Actuarial Risk Assessment and Clinical Judgement into an Evidence-Based Practice Framework in CPS Case Management, Children and Youth Services Review, vol. 27, no. 4, April, pp. 409-427.

Thoma, E. (1998) If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Now - The Business of Foster Care, Issues in Child Abuse Accusations, vol. 10.

United Nations (1989) Convention on the Rights of the Child, UNICEF, 14 pages.

Warner, J. (2014) ‘Heads Must Roll’? Emotional Politics, the Press and the Death of Baby P, British Journal of Social Work, vol. 44, no. 6, September, pp. 1637-1653.

White, A. and Walsh, P. (2006) Risk Assessment in Child Welfare: An Issues Paper, Centre for Parenting and Research, NSW Department of Community Services, September.




How to Cite

Sutcliffe, C., & Bhatti-Sinclair, K. (2019). Normative and Positive Social Work in the Context of the Placement Decision: A Defence of Social Workers. Social Work and Social Sciences Review, 20(2), 77-94.