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Norwegian authorities highlight the responsibility of Child Protection Services (CPS) to investigate concerns and assist children who may be at harm because of prolonged child custody disputes. There are, however, challenges and dilemmas related to the CPS’s work with families embroiled in child custody disputes. The terms ‘child custody disputes’ and ‘interparental conflicts’ are used in the research literature to denote complex family situations. In this study, they are applied regarding post-separation couples who have major disagreements on child custody issues and whose interaction is characterized by hostility, anger, distrust, and desire for revenge. CPS’s work with child custody disputes takes place in a legal grey zone between the Child Welfare Act and the Children Act, and thus between the responsibilities of Child Protection Services and Family counselling offices. The thesis therefore aims to explore how long-lasting child custody cases challenge CPS caseworkers’ understandings of CPS’s role and responsibilities when they investigate and assess the children’s situations and assist the families. The research question is:
How do child custody conflicts challenge CPS workers’ understandings of the Child Protection Service’s role and responsibilities?
The study’s empirical material is based on qualitative interviews with 31 caseworkers with experience from child protection casework. Their experiences varied in terms of duration and their roles within their organization. The study is based in a social constructivist perspective in which perceptions of child abuse and neglect are seen as culturally and historically grounded. Caseworkers’ understandings of child custody disputes and child abuse are based on their socially determined norms and beliefs related to childcare and childrearing. The findings are presented in three peer-reviewed articles.
The first article focuses on CPS’s work with parents in child custody disputes and particularly the challenges caseworkers face when assisting the parents. The findings show that caseworkers struggle to retain a good relationship with the parents. The caseworkers describe the parents, as ‘revolving door clients’, emphasising that they have been referred to CPS numerous times. The caseworkers describe encounters at the office as tense and said they sometimes turn into shouting matches driven by the parents’ mutual hatred and hurt feelings against each another. They also express how demanding it is to be torn between the parents finding it difficult to create a therapeutic space by supporting, clarifying misunderstandings, and moving on in an empathic manner.
The second article concentrates on the caseworkers’ assessments when they are concerned about the intensity of interparental conflicts and particularly how they determine when and how to intervene. While the caseworkers agree that excessive conflicts between parents are a significant risk factor for children’s well-being, the findings demonstrate that they have difficulties in assessing the gravity of conflicts and the potential harm to the children, especially when the conflicts are the main cause for concern about the children’s wellbeing. The analysis further shows that the caseworkers have difficulties negotiating an understanding of the risk factors in families where highly educated and relatively wealthy parents provide for their children’s practical and material needs, but not their emotional needs. In many of these families, parents can appear as good caregivers for their children despite their conflicts, making it difficult for the caseworkers to judge the parents’ actions and parental capacity. This might explain why the caseworkers, despite long-lasting concerns, tend not to apply for care orders to social welfare boards, even in cases where this step is considered.
The third article explores caseworkers’ experiences of investigating cases involving long-term custody disputes. Lipsky’s concept of ‘street-level bureaucracy’ is used to shed light on how caseworkers manage conflicting goals and demands when conducting such investigations. While the ideal decision-making process in CPS is supposed to ensure that CPS’s actions are based on in-depth knowledge and assessments of the risks of harm to children, the caseworkers in this study face obstacles in conducting their investigations. Many of the parents can appear resourceful with little previous contact with public welfare services. The findings further show that the caseworkers’ investigative processes are complicated by what they perceive as the parents’ manipulation and unwillingness to cooperate. Furthermore, uncertainty in these cases relates to the parents’ contradictory stories about their family life. This seems to pose a great challenge to the caseworkers categorizing and making decisions on how to help the families. To deal with this, the caseworkers develop coping strategies such as using children as case informants. Given the pressure put on caseworkers to meet their organization’s targets and make informed decisions, caseworkers can feel the need to prioritise performance demands over values derived from social work profession.
Overall, the study shows that CPS’s role and responsibility are challenged in cases involving prolonged child custody disputes. Although there are obvious limitations with regard to generalizing from my findings, the study contributes to a deeper understanding of the importance of caseworkers’ communication skills and how they chose a course of action in encounters with families in crisis. The results of the study call for more research on how caseworkers can respond constructively to different families’ unique needs. The study also indicates that the CPS needs more knowledge about conflicts as a phenomenon, conflict resolution, and how child custody disputes can be understood in relation to emotional neglect. Highly educated and relatively wealthy parents’ ability to provide for their children’s practical and material needs can conceal how child custody disputes can put children’s well-being at risk. The caseworkers face the difficult task of determining what constitutes emotional neglect or poor parenting abilities based on their discretionary reasoning and professional convictions. This study’s results also point towards the importance of collaboration with other professionals to strengthen the caseworkers’ interventions and help them provide a comprehensive perspective and assessment of these families.