Equivocating over the care and protection continuum: an exploration of families not meeting the threshold for statutory intervention.

AuthorManion, Kathleen


Child, Youth and Family (CYF) undertook a study of nearly a thousand case files to provide an informed perspective on why high numbers of cases that progressed to an investigation were closed after completion of that investigation with no further statutory intervention. One of the objectives of the survey was to examine social workers' case notes in detail to learn what was occurring in these cases and determine whether it was possible to make any efficiencies. The study was designed to permit a content analysis of the case notes in a stratified sample of 2003/04 CYF clients who had the outcome "case closed post-investigation". The researchers identified assessment outcomes for case closures. The data illustrated that a considerable number of families notified to CYF were of sufficient concern to warrant an investigation, but did not meet the threshold for statutory intervention. The data also provided evidence that the families in these cases were often experiencing various risks and stressors, and that while many of these families appear to be receiving a mixture of ad hoc and formal support services, many families and children have multiple engagements with CYF. The findings suggest that an optimal response requires the continued development and coordination of a range of services and agencies for referrals at the non-statutory end of the service continuum.


With several decades of increased recognition of child maltreatment and amplified societal recognition of the needs of children and young people (see, for instance, Helfner et al. 1968, Pfohl 1977), it is not surprising that communities and professionals are finding concerning issues to report. Demand for child protection services in New Zealand has grown (Mansell 2006), yet there has been no corresponding expansion of community-based services. Therefore by default, Child Youth and Family (CYF) has become the organisation presented with this need. Meanwhile, much like child protection agencies in other jurisdictions facing this increased demand (such as Canada), CYF continues to grapple with a negative public perception and budget constraints (Leschied et al. 2003). The organisation sometimes struggles to adhere to social work principles of reflective practice (2) due to the pressures of public criticism. Although evidence-based practice is the cornerstone of policy and practice, it is sometimes with trepidation that a close examination of casework is undertaken for fear of how critics may use what is found (Adam et al. 2004).

In this climate, CYF has tried to increase efficiency and effectiveness to better respond to demand and streamline its processes. The CYF care and protection process has four main phases of engagement: intake, investigation, intervention and placement. Generally, more than three-quarters of intakes are referred on to investigation, but only one-quarter of investigations go on to statutory intervention (Cabinet Expenditure and Administration Committee Review of the care and protection system [EXG Min (06) 5/6 refers]). External agencies have seen this as inefficiency in the system, and CYF produced the report Responses to Demand (CYF 2006a) in part as a reply to this criticism. For the purposes of that report, this study was undertaken to examine the case notes about a population of children that had proceeded from intake to investigation in which the cases were closed post-investigation. The overall aim of the research was to gather more information about the "case-closed post-investigation" population and to develop a greater understanding of the nature of demand at the intake and investigation phase of the CYF process. The analysis of case note data included identifying and categorising the presenting and emerging issues for children, young people and their families. An additional goal of the research was to record and count the primary reasons for CYF disengagement with the child and their family after an investigation outcome. In the lexicon of CYF, this disengagement is known as No Further Action (NFA) (see Figure 1).


The case note study found that cases closed post-investigation did not represent a waste of effort, in that the majority of cases contained sufficient concern of child maltreatment to warrant an investigation. Social workers were tasked with assessing serious potential harm and identifying cases requiring further statutory intervention, while working with families and other services to provide support and solutions for families to reduce the likelihood of a more intrusive intervention. The researchers found very few examples of cases that had questionable cause for investigation. Furthermore, the closures of cases could be attributed to valid reasons, including situations where families had resolved issues themselves. The data also indicated that in many cases where social workers were working with families, their support and advice had provided the tools for change to take place. Family hui (meetings) and informal family/whanau agreements, referrals to services (particularly parenting and anger management courses) and placements (particularly whanau placements) were prevalent in the records for the children and their families.

This study illustrated that although the investigation of these cases had found it unnecessary to invoke a formal, recorded, statutory intervention, a large portion of the cases needed some form of service to assist the family with the stressors and risks that could otherwise compromise the wellbeing of their children and youth. These risks and stressors were evident from the statistical data in the CYRAS database, (3) which indicated that 30% of the children and youth in the NFA cases had a formally substantiated finding of maltreatment. The data that emerged from this study of case notes suggested nearly double that proportion of children and youth experienced harm, neglect and behaviour/relationship difficulties.

By coding the issues presented in the CYRAS case notes, researchers were able to build a body of evidence to indicate the population of children and young people in the NFA cases who experienced a range of risks, including domestic violence, caregivers' mental health issues, socioeconomic hardship, caregivers' problems coping with difficult behaviour, and substance misuse. Researchers were able to identify other issues for children and youth, including truancy, mental health issues and disabilities.

The research showed a prevalence of children who presented with multiple issues of suspected neglect, emotional abuse and behaviour/relationship difficulties, many of which were identified in the case notes. The care and protection concerns surrounding these difficulties are acknowledged in other research as being hard to formally substantiate and treat (Drake and Jonson-Reid 2007). Children at the centre of these cases are likely to present several times to a child protection agency before a circumstance warranting further intervention is identified. The obstacles to identifying need in these cases can lead to repeated presentations to care and protection agencies. The research into these issues indicates that children who suffer neglect and emotional abuse are particularly vulnerable to flying beneath the radar of formal intervention by child protection agencies. Because these forms of maltreatment tend to be difficult for child welfare agents to identify and substantiate, children in these circumstances may spend extended periods of their developmental years unnoticed yet exposed to an extremely detrimental environment, which provides poor life experiences and cumulatively leads to poor life outcomes (HMSO 1995, DFPS 2001, CWIG 2006).

Issues of emotional abuse and neglect seemed particularly prevalent in this population. We concluded that the approach of attending to the needs of children, young people and families who present to CYF's front door would require a strategy that provides as wide a platform as possible for the delivery of various types of child and family services to achieve the best outcomes for those concerned.

Already contributing to that platform are the CYF and community-based initiatives of collaborative working and differential response models, (4) designed to actuate safe and effective referrals to appropriate agencies. In addition, there are Ministry of Social Development initiatives aimed at improving service co-ordination and service reach, (5) and the Children's Commissioner's "Ten Year Vision" aims to ensure, via assessments at key transitions, that families are supported within their communities to help children thrive in physical, emotional, cognitive and social development (Kiro 2006). However, until such capacity is built and working relationships are functioning, the statutory agency remains the de facto organisation for dealing with broad areas of need among the families and children referred.


The project undertook to research a sample of cases from July 2003 to June 2004 that proceeded to an investigation phase in the CYF system and were subsequently closed. The approach of the study was to conduct a content analysis of all case notes recorded within the intake and investigation phases of the sample population. The year of the sample was chosen to allow sufficient time to lapse up to the 2006 research to determine whether the child and family had subsequently returned to CYF.

A stratified random sample (6) of 988 cases was selected from the 19,713 individual cases that were closed post-investigation over the period of the 2003/04 financial year. The aim of stratifying the population was to get samples of sufficient size in each of the "criticality statuses" CYF assigns to its cases. The criticality status dictates how rapidly social workers are expected to attend to the case. There are four statuses of response: critical, very urgent, urgent, and low urgent. The sampling frame...

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