Reflections on the Traditional Role of Social Workers in Child Protection: Lessons Learned from the Strong Communities Initiative in Israel

Carmit Katz, Jill McLeigh, Asher Ben Arieh - International Journal on Child Maltreatment: Research, Policy and Practice


Policymakers, researchers, and practitioners worldwide have long dedicated resources toward addressing child maltreatment. Most of these resources, however, have been directed toward investigation and response. Although prevention has received increasing attention during the last several years, efforts have typically focused on families deemed to be at imminent risk of causing harm to their children or on preventing revictimization. Further, such efforts have targeted individual- or family-level factors, despite a growing body of research suggesting that maltreatment results from a complex array of social, economic, and psychological stressors (see, e.g., Maguire-Jack and Font 2017; Nadan et al. 2015; Pelton 2015; Thompson 2015). These findings suggest that strategies and policies aimed at addressing community-level structures and processes are needed (e.g., Maguire-Jack and Showalter 2016; McDonell and Skosireva 2009.

In Israel, as in many other countries, child protective services (CPS) adheres to the traditional social work model of investigation and response. In this model, the role of social workers is typically to respond to reports of child maltreatment to determine whether children are safe in their home environments. By design, social workers’ involvement is reactive. This essay provides an overview of an alternative to the traditional model of social work that was developed in the context of an initiative seeking to address the community-level factors shown to influence children’s safety. The model described in this essay was part of an effort to replicate Strong Communities for Children (Strong Communities)—which was first piloted in the USA—in south Tel Aviv, Israel. Strong Communities seeks to keep children safe by building systems of support for parents with young children. In adapting the initiative to the Israeli context, the 3-year replication effort included an emphasis on working with child protective services (CPS).

We wish to note that although this essay focuses on the social work profession, we in no way wish to imply that social workers bear sole responsibility for keeping children safe. Rather, a key tenet of Strong Communities states that effective child maltreatment prevention requires that entire communities accept responsibility for parent support and child safety. Thus, the engagement of social workers in Strong Communities entailed involving social workers in the communities in which their investigations occurred.