Home > Exploring the policy to practice gap. Social workers’ experience of embedding child protection policy into their practice.

O'Connell, Olivia (2014) Exploring the policy to practice gap. Social workers’ experience of embedding child protection policy into their practice. Masters thesis, National University of Ireland, Cork.

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Ireland has a long and complex social history regarding the development of child protection practice. A wide body of literature has been published internationally over the past twenty-five years researching and theorising on the best approaches for implementing new governmental policies. Irish governmental policy and professional practice has made numerous attempts to bridge the policy to practice gap in child protection by developing various implementation strategies. To date, these strategies have been reviewed predominantly using a top-down assessment approach.

In contrast, this qualitative research study critically examines the policy to practice gap through a bottom-up approach by exploring the implementation of child protection policy from a frontline perspective. This qualitative study employed a phenomenological approach to explore how social workers experience applying child protection policy to their practice. In-depth interviews were conducted with eight participants who had a minimum of one year’s post-qualification experience in child protection.

Four themes emerged from the data analysis. The first theme, Professional role identity, discussed the participants’ perception of their role and responsibilities as child protection social workers. The theme Spheres of influence captures their perspective regarding the influence and impact that external stakeholders, service users and external professionals have on the ability of social workers to implement child protection policy.
Child protection social work in Ireland has undergone many changes in recent years; such as the establishment of the new TUSLA Child and Family Agency. Hence Negotiating the change process is a theme that often arose during the participant interviews. The final theme, Exercising frontline discretion, explores how practitioners exercise professional judgement in making practice decisions within legal and policy frameworks.

The findings from this research study are analysed through the lens of implementation science which highlights the highly complex nature of applying policy in frontline practice settings. From a social workers’ perspective, all of the findings suggest a ‘policy overload’ which can be an indicator of organisational crisis. This, in turn, has implications for both service providers and service users.

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