In a context of rapidly changing social and economic conditions and increasing practice complexity, critical research perspectives can create in-depth explanatory knowledge for social work practice. Drawing on a broader knowledge base, these approaches provide a comprehensive view of social phenomena and the causes of personal and social harm. They also offer a framework to guide ethical intervention based on principles of collaboration, social justice and social transformation. The aim of this article is to demonstrate how critically oriented research can deliver useful and actionable knowledge directly to the field and promote transformative change. The exemplar presented here is a critical participatory study exploring formal kinship care in Victoria, Australia. The research partnered actively with service users and practitioners, with mixed methods utilised and data analysed for content and themes. Findings revealed dissonant assumptions in relation to roles and responsibilities as an underlying cause of care and practice issues. New understandings and practical solutions for the field were generated by exploring study findings with stakeholders. This application of a critical research approach to the field of formal kinship care establishes that the method can provide a coherent, effective and ethical framework for inquiry.