‘Rising demand and decreasing resources’: Theorising the ‘cost of austerity’ as a barrier to social worker discretion.

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Abstract

The Munro Review of Child Protection asserted that the English child protection system had become overly ‘defensive’, ‘bureaucratised’ and ‘standardised’, meaning that social workers were not employing their discretion in the interests of the individual child. This paper reports on the results of an ethnographic case study of one of England’s statutory child protection teams. The research sought to explore the extent of social worker discretion relative to Munro’s call for ‘radical reform’ and a move towards a more ‘child-centred’ system. Employing an iterative mixed methods design – encompassing documentary analysis, observation, focus group, questionnaire, interview and ‘Critical Realist Grounded Theory’ – the study positioned the UK Government’s prolonged policy of ‘austerity’ as a barrier to social worker discretion. This was because the policy was seen to be contributing to an increased demand for child protection services, and a related sense amongst practitioners, that they were afforded insufficient time with the child to garner the requisite knowledge, necessary for discretionary behaviour. Ultimately, despite evidence of progress relative to assertions that social worker discretion had been eroded, the paper concludes that there may still be ‘more to do’ if we are to achieve the ‘child-centred’ and ‘effective’ system that Munro advocated.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Social Policy
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 18 May 2021

Keywords

  • austerity
  • child protection
  • discretion
  • discretionary space
  • Munro Review
  • social work

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