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Seminar presentation by Dr Emily Keddell

Dr Emily Keddell, Associate Professor in Social and Community Work at the University of Otago – Te Whare Wānanga o Otago, presented a seminar hosted by the Centre for Child, Youth and Family Welfare on Tuesday 5th September 2023.

Dr Emily Keddell

Seminar Overview:

Shifting sands at the reporting interface: Conflicting practice heuristics in child protection

In Aotearoa New Zealand, children enter the statutory part of the child protection system via the reports of others. Decisions to report are consequential with considerable effects for children, their families, and wider communities. They are a key step in the creation of disparities for Māori and people living in high deprivation areas and can lead to unwarranted investigations as well as protection from serious harm for children at risk.

Decisions to report also become data that are relied upon in research and for prediction purposes, the latter both for social worker decisions and statistical tools. This study qualitatively examined the reasoning rationales and decision-making processes underpinning the reporting decisions of NGO community workers, school staff and police, as well as the perspectives of families who had been reported. This talk discusses the data relating to NGO workers and school staff. Apart from in the most serious cases, both groups of reporters noted the ‘grey’ intersections between fluctuating family life, definitions of abuse and reporting thresholds. They made efforts to support and monitor families if at all possible before reporting but had varied resources at their disposal to do so. This, along with value and severity perception differences, led to reporting threshold variance. Reporters were embedded in a relational context with families that shaped perceptions of risk, particularly perceptions of engagement. Reporters nearly always discussed reports first with families themselves, despite injunctions not to. Problems with previous reports such as delays, poor feedback, report closure and poor outcomes led to a loss of confidence in reporting and a lack of clarity about the reporting threshold. In turn, this led to ethical conundrums for reporters between duty-based and consequentialist reasoning. A conflict was evident between the statutory agency’s changing heuristics relating to family preservation and ‘adding value,’ with reporters’ expectations. This was experienced as professionally patronising for reporters and appeared oblivious to power differences in their roles. Findings are discussed with reference to the changing policy environment in Aotearoa NZ as well as implications for policy, practice, and data use.


Dr Emily Keddell is an Associate Professor in Social and Community Work at the University of Otago – Te Whare Wānanga o Otago. Her research focusses on the intersecting social inequities affecting the child protection system in Aotearoa New Zealand. Beneath this broad umbrella, she examines disparities for specific citizen groups, decision-making variability, knowledge interpretation in practice, the use of algorithmic decision tools, and preventing care entry around the time of birth. She was a witness at both the Waitangi Tribunal hearing (WAI2915) (investigating inequities for Māori in the child protection system), and the Royal Inquiry into Abuse in State Care. She is a founding member of the Reimagining Social Work blog, an associate editor of Qualitative Social Work, a member of the ANZSW editorial collective, and co-founded the social justice and child protection research network Aotearoa. Her work highlights issues of rights, equity, and justice within child protection systems and how to address them.