The findings of this study suggest that while child welfare workers are consistently distracted by competing priorities from unexpected events, most are committed, and to understand perspectives is more inclusive and may improve retention rates. Notably, while it is recognized that permanency decisions are not made in an intellectual, legal or clinical vacuum and certain traditional aspects of the bureaucratic structure do not impact decision making, this study advances the body of knowledge on child welfare decision making. Examined in this study are child welfare case workers’ perceptions of the extent to which the organizational environment influences the permanency decisions they make to reunify or terminate parental rights of children placed out-of-home. This study includes a sample of 95 child welfare social workers employed in three public child welfare agencies in the Baltimore and Washington, DC metropolitan area. It used a cross-sectional research design, employing a survey instrument to examine bureaucratic distraction, role conflict, and supervisory adequacy as contextual factors in the organizational environment's influence on permanency outcome decisions. Implications are made for child welfare policy, practice, and research.

Key Take Away Points

  • Decision making is a significant aspect of child welfare practice;
  • Child welfare workers are challenged by competing priorities within the organizational environment;
  • Future studies are needed to examine the relationship between the permanency outcomes decisions and biological families, foster caregivers, and the agency's commitment to family centered practice.

Author Biography

Belinda Davis-Smith, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the BSW Department at Morgan State University. She is currently Co-Chair of the Children, Youth and Family Committee and Project Director of a Family Strengthening Program Evaluation Study. Her research interests are in the area of child welfare decision-making, older youth aging out of foster care, and urban social work practice. She has an extensive practice background working with children, youth, and families in urban communities and the field of child welfare practice. She has a Bachelor’s degree in social work from Tuskegee University and earned her Masters of Social Work degree from the University of Louisville and her Doctorate from Howard University.

Rhonda Wells-Wilbon, DSW is an Associate Professor and Chair of the MSW Program in the School of Social Work at Morgan State University. She has over twenty-five years of professional social work experience and has been on faculty for fifteen years and taught in the BSW, MSW and Ph.D. Programs. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in social work from Michigan State University and a Masters and Doctorate degree in Social Work from Howard University. She has served as chair of the Departments Curriculum Committee; Practice Sequence; and School Social Work Concentration Sequence. She has also served as the liaison for the Morgan State University Head Start Program. She was the Principal Investigator for a quality child care initiative grant to evaluate the quality of child care programs where she has received over 1 million dollars in funding, through the District of Columbia, Department of Human Resources, Early Care and Education Administration. In 2000 she was appointed by Governor Parris Glendening to serve on the State of Maryland Judith P. Hoyer Blue Ribbon Commission for the Funding of Early Child Care and Education Programs and served on the State of Maryland Child Care Advisory Council from 1997-2001. She was the Chair and Chief Instructor for the National Association of Black Social Workers National Academy for African-Centered Social Work from 2001 to 2005.


We would like to extend sincere appreciation to Dr. Anna McPhatter, Dean, Professor Yvonne Greene, BSW Department Chair, and Dr. Sandra Chipungu of Morgan State University for their unwavering support.