What knowledge do social workers use to inform their decision regarding permanency for Looked after Children?

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctorate in Childhood Studies


Accurately identifying children at risk of abuse and intervening in ways that will protect them is far from an exact science (Spratt et al. 2015; Fleming et al. 2015) and is made all the harder by the fact that social workers have no unitary knowledge base to draw on to determine their recommendations (Enosh and Bayer-Topilsky, 2015). Much as one would like to be able to base such important recommendations on the solid ground of empirical findings, the nature of child abuse precludes this possibility (Bartoli and Dolan, 2014). The belief that empirical findings could provide a single actuarial-like formula so that decisions could be based on hard data has yet to materialize (Munro, 1999; Minkhorst, et al. 2016) resulting in inconsistency in decisions taken in child protection (Spratt, 2000). In the absence of this actuarial-like formula or unitary knowledge base, it is important to know what knowledge social workers in the field use to inform their recommendations for permanency.

This thesis presents findings from an exploratory in-depth qualitative research project whose aim was to explore the knowledge that social workers use to make decisions regarding permanency. The thesis begins with an exploration of the literature, before outlining the theoretical orientation of the research and its utility as a research construct for studying knowledge, which was based on a social constructionist approach. This underscored the research view that knowledge is made or invented – rather than merely given or taken for granted. It views knowledge as an individual interpretation of the world which in turn required me to understand the social world that people have constructed and which they reproduce through their continuing activities (Denzin and Lincoln, 2017). To generate this new awareness regarding the social phenomena of the knowledge used by social workers to make decisions, the research adopted a logic of enquiry to answer the question that fits with the phenomenological interpretivist schools of research.

The thesis continues by outlining how a specifically created vignette was established in consultation with experts, to explore the knowledge practitioners in a statutory local authority in Northern Ireland used to make decisions regarding permanency. The thesis outlines how thinking aloud-protocols and a semi-structured interview were used to explore the knowledge used by practitioners to make the decision. From the interview’s themes were generated using NVivo 11. An adapted model of knowledge was used to help structure the themes arising from the interviews (Pawson et al. 2003a; Drury-Hudson, 1997; 1999) and these themes are presented. Whilst the research recognizes Pawson et al.’s and Drury-Hudson’s sources of knowledge as valid and recognizable, the research found that there was wide variation between practitioners in relation to the extent, depth and degree to which each source of knowledge was used. Based on the findings, recommendations are made that will help inform social work graduate and postgraduate education, professional training, and practice, as well as professional supervision, with the aim of improving the extent and depth of practitioner knowledge in the field, thus increasing the robustness, consistency and defensibility of decisions taken.
Date of AwardDec 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorJoe Duffy (Supervisor) & Davy Hayes (Supervisor)


  • Decision-making
  • permanency
  • child welfare
  • child protection
  • knowledge

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