First Advisor

Stephanie Bryson

Term of Graduation

January 2023

Date of Publication


Document Type





Child protection, Child welfare, Institutional ethnography, Social work

Physical Description

1 online resource ( pages)


Millions of families come into contact with child welfare every year (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2020). The mission of child welfare is to strengthen the ability of families to care for their children and to protect children and provide aid, services, or referrals to families where maltreatment is said to have occurred (Congressional Research Services, 2020). The vast majority of the families who become involved with child welfare are multiply disadvantaged (e.g., Mersky et al., 2009; Sedlak et al., 2010; Testa & Smith, 2009) and child welfare is a key feature of the array of public supports for struggling families. However, the institution fails many of the families it serves (e.g., Dworsky et al., 2013; Juvenile Law Center, 2018; Okpych & Courtney, 2014; Wade & Dixon, 2006). Despite recent efforts by those in the field to promote collaboration and engagement, many parents experience child welfare as neither empowering nor helpful (e.g., Altman, 2008; Bundy-Fazioli et al., 2008; Dumbrill, 2006; Palmer et al., 2006; Schmid & Pollack, 2009) and many families do not get the assistance they need (e.g., Alpert, 2005; Ferguson, 2009; Kazdin, 2000; Mueller & Pekarik, 2000; Toros et al., 2018).My project assumes that caseworkers and casework are key sites for exploring and understanding the problems facing child welfare. I use Institutional Ethnography (IE) to explore how it is that casework happens as it does—more specifically, how caseworkers come to act in ways that both caseworkers and families experience as unhelpful, despite caseworkers’ stated commitment to partnership and empowerment. IE explores how policies, discourses, and other institutional processes affect the day-to-day actualities of professionals and the people with whom they work (Campbell & Gregor, 2008; Devault, 2006; Pence, 2001). Of particular interest are situations in which the everyday interactions of individuals are organized in ways that conflict with or subjugate their interests (Smith, 1987, 2005). I analyze data from interviews, observations and document reviews to explicate how the local “everyday” of CPS casework is drawn into extra-local relations of ruling that organize that work in accordance with principles and interests that are in large measure antithetical to the development of collaborative and empowering relationships. More specifically, the analysis makes visible the power of maltreatment and other concepts and categories associated with what I refer to as the dependency legal regime as caseworkers orient to concepts (e.g. allegations) and categories (e.g. types of abuse), standards (e.g. reasonable cause) and methods for building textual representations of actualities (e.g. case records and court reports) that constitute the known-in-common social context of child protective services (Smith & Griffith, 2022). As caseworkers’ practices and subjectivities are organized by the dependency legal regime, they see parents’ struggles as ‘maltreatment’ (rather than the result of marginalization and disadvantage) and understand their job as ‘proving the case’ (rather than collaborating with parents and providing support).


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