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To What Extent are Frontline Statutory Social Workers Employing Their Discretion in the Post- Munro Review World of Child Protection?

Murphy, C. M. M. (2019) To What Extent are Frontline Statutory Social Workers Employing Their Discretion in the Post- Munro Review World of Child Protection? Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.


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In May 2011, Eileen Munro concluded her review of the English child protection system. Within, she identified obstacles which she believed were hindering the realisation of an ‘effective’ and ‘child-centred’ system. This included the ‘risk’ associated with the social worker’s discretionary space, leading managers to restrict, and practitioners to minimise, opportunities for frontline discretion. It was on this basis that Munro called for reform of the system, so that social workers would be better able and motivated to exercise their discretion in the best interests of the individual child. It is also in these terms that the author set out to explore the degree to which social workers are employing their discretion within the contemporary child protection system. This thesis reports on the results of a qualitative mixed methods case study of one local authority’s child protection team. The focus of enquiry pertained to the extent and nature of the discretionary space encountered; whether social workers were willing to employ discretion within different contexts; and the factors that were understood to be impacting upon discretionary space and choice. The research comprised of an iterative design, incorporating focus group, questionnaire, interview, observation and documentary analysis. The main findings were that social workers were experiencing discretionary space in a de jure, de facto and entrepreneurial sense; that practitioners were more likely to choose to exercise their discretion within the managerially endorsed space; and that a series of systemic factors were continuing to impede both the opportunities for, and propensity to choose, discretion. Ultimately, whilst the research provides some evidence in favour of Munro’s image for discretion within the system, the identification of continued barriers leads to the thesis’ conclusion that further reform may be required if child protection social workers are to more consistently employ their discretion in the interests of the individual child.

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