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  • Writer's pictureAnn Wrixon

California Child Welfare Less Likely to Note Lack of Attachment as a Risk Factor for Children

Ann Wrixon blog on attachment theory in child welfare

A small 2015 study examined how child welfare workers in England, Norway, and California (USA) assessed emotional bonding as a risk factor for children. The California workers were significantly less likely to note this as a risk factor than the workers in England or Norway. This difference is likely due to the education, and assessment tools used by each child welfare system.

In California, the Structured Decision Making (SDM) risk assessment tool, which only has a single question in a supplementary section about emotional bonding. Using the English Assessment Triangle, the worker in England considers several aspects of emotional bonding. In Norway, the workers use their professional judgment. The workers in England were the most likely to note emotional bonding as a risk factor and the workers in Norway were significantly more likely than the workers in California to note this risk, but somewhat less likely than the workers in England. Surprisingly, the workers in California were the most likely to offer services that addressed emotional bonding even though they were the least likely to note it as a risk, and the workers in Norway were the least likely to do so.

The child welfare systems in England and California are both “child protective systems,” which means there is a very high threshold for intervention “with a focus on preventing and stopping serious risk that can harm a child’s health and safety.” (p. 812) Norway uses a “family services system,” “where the aim is to promote a healthy childhood and prevent serious risk and harm.” (p.812) This results in earlier interventions before the risk level is serious. In addition, the child welfare curriculum in Norway puts an emphasis on attachment theory.

This study shows that despite the underlying system type, the risk assessment tool used by workers has a significant effect on how child welfare workers use emotional bonding in assessing risk to children. Although England and California both use the “child protective system” model, the workers in England use an assessment model that includes an emphasis on emotional bonding, and therefore are very attuned to this issue in their assessments. Norway uses a “family services system” model, and does not have a standardized assessment tool, but emphasizes attachment theory in their educational curriculum, so that they almost as frequently assess emotional bonding as a risk as do workers in England. California workers referring more families for services indicates that services relating to emotional bonding exist in California, but workers are less likely to note that attachment is an issue.

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