HOME >Winter 2009 - Volume 53 - Number 1

Adjusting the Lens: Parents Create Change in Ontario's Child Protection System
By Dr. Bernadette Gallagher

This study explored the potential for parents to create social change in Ontario’s current system of child protection. Concepts of social justice and participatory action research (PAR) were used to focus the inquiry and provided boundaries for data collection, analysis and dissemination (Morse, 1998). Participants in the study included (1) parents, referred to as an adult caregiver inclusive of extended family raising children; who have successfully completed a supervision court order and (2) professionals associated with child protection.

The following two research questions were explored: what advice do court ordered parents give on how to create a less bureaucratic system of child protection in Ontario? Secondly, how can professionals be engaged to work with parents to bring about the recommended changes? A research facilitation team of parents as co-researchers participated in the study’s design and provided on-going consultation during data collection and analysis. Data emerged from three focus groups; a parent group, a professional group and one involving both parents and professionals. Of significance in the study is the opportunity for eight parents and thirteen professionals to voice their collective views on changes they would make to the child protection system.

The findings suggest the study was timely in light of the newly amended Child and Family Services Act, 2006 in Ontario. Parents and professionals alike came forward with suggestions for change that now fall within the realm of the new Act. These suggestions are identified and discussed in this study.

Purpose of the Study: Advancing Social Justice through Inclusion

“We are no longer just the 'patients', the 'cases', the diagnostic categories. We come claiming the right for things to be different…We come with contributions to make” (Beresford, 2004, p. 3).

The child protection system in Ontario is currently struggling and has been characterized as being preoccupied with the provision of reactive services (Barter, 2004b; Cameron, 2003; McKenzie and Trocmé, 2003; Peirson, Nelson and Prilleltensky, 2003; Wharf, 2002). Forensic social work practices have prevailed over traditional social justice models of empowerment, prevention, and community capacity building approaches to child protection (CASW, 2003; Peirson, Nelson and Prilleltensky, 2003). Proponents of anti-oppressive social work practices suggest the impact of this amended child welfare reform is an inverse relationship between the level of family surveillance and the degree of satisfaction with social justice for children. In fact, as risk management increases, issues of social justice decrease (Barter, 2004b; Cameron, 2003; Lawrence, 2004; Peirson, Nelson and Prilleltensky, 2003; Sharland, 1999).

How parents claim a voice in a system, which by its mandated design, is based on power differentials against them (Barter, 1997, 2001; OACAS, 2006a; Wharf, 2002), is explored through involving them in a research facilitation team, focus groups to discuss analysis of content and focus group consultation with child protection workers. This study is about elevating the voice of parents in the child protection reform process. It is a discussion about change at multiple levels from the personal to the broader structural. More importantly, the study is about adjusting how the child protection field views parents: from liability to resource.

Literature Review: Finding the Voices of Parents in Research

The aim of the literature review was to investigate the degree to which parents were engaged in the child protection research process. The review was concerned with evaluating the scope of power that parents have in the research process. It is clear from reviewing the literature concerning child abuse that parents have a voice but it is often as subjects of research (Cadzow, Armstrong and Fraser, 1999; Cameron and Birnie-Lefcovitch, 2000; DiLauro, 2004; Manji, Maiter, and Palmer, 2005; Strega, 2005a). When parents have been consulted about child protection services however, their voice has often been in the form of consumer feedback (Cameron, 2003; Dumbrill, 2006; Rutman, Strega, Callahan, and Dominelli, 2002; Callahan and Lumb, 1995). A more intense form of power in the research process occurred when parents became co-researchers and engaged in pivotal decision making steps (Dumbrill and Maiter, 2004; McKenzie and Seidl, 1995). As the degree of inclusiveness in the research process increased it became more difficult to find research that asks parents to be colleagues (Thomas, 2005). Of course there is a body of literature that is about parents in which they are outside the research process all together (DiLauro, 2004; Miller, Fox and Garcia-Beckwith, 1999; Trocmé, et al, 2005; Trocmé, et al, 2003; Leschied, Whitehead, Hurley and Chiodo, 2004). The argument made here is that the more involvement parents have in the process, the more potential there is to exercise power over how their situations will change (Adams, 2003; Beresford, 1999, 2003; Cornwall and Jewkes, 1995; Freire, 2005).

A position taken in this study is that there is a gap in child protection research literature and primarily it is that parents have been excluded as primary creators of knowledge. This social exclusion argument is suggested after examining the role parents have played in the research process historically. This study advocates that parents can and should be colleagues in the research process.

Methodology: Research is Both a Change Process and Product

The study expanded the parameters of collaboration and embraces a collegial approach toward research. As such the study is designed to meaningfully involve parents in the research agenda by including them as co-researchers. “It is research that takes seriously and seeks to make the connections between how knowledge is created, what knowledge is produced and who is entitled to engage in these processes” (Brown and Strega, 2005, p. 7). Principles associated with participatory action research (PAR) are used to focus the inquiry and provide boundaries for data collection, analysis and dissemination (Morse, 1998).

In keeping with the principles of PAR, parents were included in all aspects of the study, including the role of co-researchers. Arguments have been made (Beresford, 1999, 2003; Cameron, 2003; Dumbrill and Maiter, 2004; Thorpe, 2007) that expert knowledge in child protection can and should include parents as service users; for they know best what is needed to help their situations. To strengthen the position that parents make legitimate researchers, Dumbrill and Maiter (2004) suggest, “That if child protection clients were experts on their own needs, they must also be expert evaluators of the services designed to meet these needs” (p. 18). Failure to recognize parents as equal creators of scientific knowledge appears incompatible with values associated with social work and social justice (Beresford, 1999; O’Connor, Morgenstern, Gibson and Nakashian, 2005). What was unique in this child protection study was the role of parents as researchers.

Participant recruitment followed a non-probability theoretical sampling strategy (Charmaz, 2004; Dey, 2004; Dumbrill, 2006; Macnaghten and Myers, 2004; Morgan, 1997; Rubin and Babbie, 2001; Strauss and Corbin, 1998). Recruitment was based on individuals having experience with child protection services. Individuals were selected based on their association with child protection, not because they were representative of a larger population. Parents qualified to participate in the study: (1) If they had previously been ordered to participate in child protection services through a court order known as a supervision order. (2) If the supervision order was six months in length or longer. (3) If the family file was open after the amended Child and Family Services Act, 2000. (4) If they had maintained a one-year period free from child protection services. In total eight parents participated in the study.

The only criterion to participate as a professional participant was to have case involvement with the child welfare system. Why invite professionals into the discussion at all? At first glance it may seem contradictory to include professionals in a grassroots, social change study; however, I have learned from previous research (Leslie, 2005; Pain and Francis, 2003) that exclusion of a wider network can stymie social change. There are research studies specific to the field of child protection that suggest the importance of families, communities and professionals working together to improve the health and well-being of children (Callahan and Lumb, 1995; Cameron and Birnie-Lefcovitch, 2000; Mannes, Roehlkepartain, and Benson, 2005; McKenzie and Seidl, 1995; O’Connor, Morgenstern, Gibson and Nakashian, 2005; Rutman, Strega, Callahan, and Dominelli, 2002). In a collaborative model of research, families and service providers come together with the notion that ameliorating child abuse is a collective responsibility (Barter, 2004; Beresford, 2003; Cameron, 2003; Kufeldt and McKenzie, 2003; Wharf, 2002). In total, thirteen professionals participated in the study representing child welfare, family law and addiction services.

Three focus groups were conducted a parent only group, a professional only group and a joint parent/professional group. Each group session lasted approximately two hours in length. A prepared research interview guide was used as a framework for the group dialogue. The first focus group involved parents discussing their experiences with child protection services. Members of two facilitation teams assisted with the discussion. The location of the parent focus group was in a community room situated within an elementary school. The school had a drop-in parenting center which was used to provide child care for the participants and facilitation team members. Transportation was provided for anyone who wished to attend the focus group.

Two weeks later a focus group was conducted with professionals discussing their reactions to the recommendations of change proposed by the parents. This group was held at a women’s shelter. The location was selected because it was seen as a community hub, was available free of charge, was a place where professionals were used to meeting, was a safe environment for the facilitation team members, it was child friendly to offer child care services and most importantly, the location represented a reminder of a service that was often used in conjunction with child protection services. The final group was designed to bring parents and professionals together to discuss their ideas on how the current system of child protection can be improved. Although the literature suggests there is a lack of dialogue between families and professionals when introducing change or reform within the child protection system, there is a body of literature recommending dialogue between families, communities and professionals (Callahan and Lumb, 1995; Cameron and Birnie-Lefcovitch, 2000; Mannes, Roehlkepartain, and Benson, 2005; McKenzie and Seidl, 1995; O’Connor, Morgenstern, Gibson and Nakashian, 2005; Rutman, Strega, Callahan, and Dominelli, 2002). The joint parent and professional group was in response to this literature.

Findings: Sincere Appetite for Change

Parents suggested eleven recommendations, all of which were supported by the professional participants. These findings suggest that parents and professionals in this study are like-minded in terms of making changes to the child protection system. Further, the study findings suggest there is a need for social workers and parents to continue their discourse about the protection of children.
Parents made the following recommendations for change to the current child protection system:

1. Have two social workers assigned to a case to avoid prejudice perceptions about parents.
2. Compile a parent’s rights booklet.
3. Engage in cultural diversity training for social work staff.
4. Hold fathers more accountable for family issues.
5. Locate extended family quicker when looking for foster care placements.
6. Design a program to help teen parents and their parents raise children together.
7. Educate young girls early about self respect to prevent involvement in violent relationships.
8. Teach parents about life skills.
9. Put a package together that outlines all of the support programs available to parents and highlight the ones you expect parents to take.
10. Develop a support group so parents can meet to discuss their experiences with other parents.
11.Create safe chat rooms where parents, children and youth can communicate with others who have similar situations.

There was a balance of negative and positive comments made by parents about the service they received.


As with any interpretive study the issue of generalization is a concern (Ungar, 2007). The study provides insights into the child protection system through a limited but rich dialogue with a small group of parents and professionals. While the study explores familial experience with the mandated aspects of child protection, it is not intended to cover all non-voluntary circumstances. While this current study may not be applicable to other situations, lessons can still be drawn from it (Delong, Black and Wideman, 2005: Ungar, 2007). The steps taken in the study are outlined and could be replicated in another geographical area. At some point, should the study be replicated, the additional findings might be compared using meta-analysis approach (Delong, Black and Wideman, 2005).

While this study pushed the envelope of parent involvement in the research process there is always room to improve. Future studies should include parents in the writing of the research proposal, assisting with the research literature review or writing a specific conclusion. To make these changes more feasible the research study should consider financial reimbursement for the parents’ time and expertise.

Discussion: Implications of the study for anti-oppressive child protection practice

Parents in this study did not recall needing more control. What they wanted most was to be heard, to have a chance for change for their children and to find a way to counterbalance the professional power exerted over them. They wanted help with housing, life skills, racial equality and a connection to others who had a similar experience. The parent participants wanted to have their rights explained more clearly. All of the parents’ desires through the child protection experience suggest a need for an anti-oppressive approach to practice (Campbell, 2004; Dominelli, 2004; Potts and Brown, 2005; Strega, 2005a; Swan, 2009). Parents in this study needed personal help, structural changes and someone to listen to them in order to meet the challenges of parenting. This study highlights the need for further engagement of parents with social workers to create structural change. Parents and social workers in this study are in harmony that change needs to occur. The question now is whether there is commitment to follow through with more of this research and work?

Perhaps conviction to social justice is the first step that will encourage change both in the research process and child protection practice. To secure an anti-oppressive approach to child protection the call to action is now. How will we know when we
have arrived at a collegial approach to child protection service? We will know when parents have penned literature that is quoted in evidence-informed practice; when parents have a presence on CASs boards of directors; when diversity committees include parents as colleagues; when it becomes second nature to include parents as colleagues in research, training and policy development.


This exploratory study filled two identified gaps in the research literature: one substantive and the other related to the research process. The substantive gap to be addressed is the identification of success stories of parents who were previously court ordered into service and who are now parenting free from child protection interference. Secondly, this study will also be an addition to the limited number of studies that involve parents at a collegial level of participation in the research process (Cornwall and Jewkes, 1995). The social justice agenda of parent participation in child protection reform is advanced by heavily involving parents in all aspects of the research process. In fact, the study encouraged parents and professionals to reach beyond the limits of collaboration and work in a collegial manner to discuss necessary changes in Ontario’s child protection system. In the end this study was an opportunity to “give voice to a story that has not been fully told” (Thomas, 2005, p.242).

About Author:

Dr. Bernadette Gallagher is the Director of Education Services at the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies.


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