Ethnic inequalities in child welfare: The role of practitioner risk perceptions

Emily Keddell, Ian Hyslop - Child & Family Social Work


Indigenous children have a long history of overrepresentation in child protection systems. This exploratory, mixed methods study examined practitioner perceptions of risk in response to client ethnic group (n = 67). A staged online survey elicited responses to a blinded vignette. Half the sample received the vignette as a Pākehā (White) family and the other half as Māori (Indigenous). Apart from this, family descriptions were identical. Respondents rated their perceptions of the children's risk and related constructs and stated what decisions they would make. Qualitative perceptions of risk, safety, problem causes, and plan goals were elicited. The quantitative findings showed family ethnicity had a moderate effect on perceptions of risk, safety, and decisions. The Māori family was perceived as higher risk than the Pākehā family and had more decisions made about them. Stage 2 of the survey showed the most marked effects (d = 0.484 risk, 0.487 safety; p = 0.06). Qualitative responses showed similar constructions of risk, safety, problems, and plan goals regardless of ethnicity. Structural factors associated with ethnicity were not considered to contribute to the family's social problems. Results suggest a combination of unconscious bias and a “colour blind” approach to practice may contribute to ethnic inequalities. Implications for education, research, and practice are discussed.