A balancing act: a grounded theory study of the professional judgement of child protection social workers

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)


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Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationProfessional Judgement and Decision Making in Social Work: Current Issues
EditorsAndrew Whittaker, Brian Taylor
Place of PublicationLondon
ISBN (Print)9780367179700
StatePublished - Feb 2019


The perspectives of social workers working to protect children are under-represented in the literature. This study, based on 22 in-depth interviews with social workers, adopts a grounded theory methodology. The policy context for child protection practice is outlined and analysed. This study then looks at how information, responsibility and in particular anxiety are transacted between social workers and other professionals, with anxiety being implicit in other aspects. Further, this study found that social workers negotiated a range of delicate balances. This paper focuses on two elements of the findings, namely, ‘closeness- distance’, and ‘power over- power together’. If social workers became too close to families there was a risk of losing perspective. If social workers were too distant engagement proved difficult. Social workers aspired to share power with families, but frequently exerted power over them. The delicacy of the balances negotiated by social workers leads to a powerful analogy of social workers as tightrope walkers, and strategies to seek balance are identified. The implications for practice are explored. More attention needs to be paid to the internal mental processes of social workers, a cautious approach should be taken to rational-technical solutions and social workers need to be better prepared to respectfully challenge other professionals.


  • Child Protection; Grounded Theory, Decision Making, Social Work Practice