Methods of Review

Introduction, Principles and Processes

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The Contexts


The Studies

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Methods of Review


Team Member Bios





Joan Pennell
North Carolina State University, United States

Producing this annotated bibliography is one part of the long-term involvement of each of the team members to develop what we are now calling an evidence base for family engagement in child welfare decision making. Our aim was (and is) to identify, assess and synthesize the persistent, and at times conflicting, findings on family engagement. Selection of the four team members was deliberate, and our values and backgrounds shaped how we envisioned and organized our collaborative undertaking.

We started our exploration of family engagement by first acknowledging our shared commitment to family rights. Our rationale for focusing on family engagement came out of a normative stance that children, young people and their families should have a say over their affairs. Our assumption or theory of change was that family engagement is a means of furthering family rights. Thus, we asked how families can take part in making decisions and carrying out plans that uphold their sense of mutual identity, belonging and accountability and safeguard their child and adult members. This question points to the complexity of family rights.

The concept of family rights evokes the cultures of families as well as the human rights of family members, individually and collectively. We speculated that family rights could be advanced by varying degrees of family engagement and that family disengagement might be crucial depending on the stage of work, the age and directions of young people, the extent of domestic violence and so forth. Consequently, in studying the evidence base for family engagement, we needed to map identifying “sign posts” in varied contexts.

We intentionally sought diversity in examining family engagement in child welfare decision making. This goal was reflected in the composition of our team, with members residing in different national or regional contexts: New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the Northeastern and Southeastern United States. These contexts forced us to check that a term such as “family engagement” made sense across jurisdictions. Each of us brought different local and international networks that helped us identify relevant studies and understand the child welfare context in which the evidence on family engagement was produced. Marie, in her discussion of divergent child welfare systems, provides the context in which to interpret the findings from the studies included in the annotated bibliography.

In mapping family engagement in child welfare decision making, we each brought extensive experience in family-engagement practice, policy, training and evaluation. These overlapping endeavors led to our recognizing how each influences the evidence for family engagement and in turn, is influenced by this evidence. From our experience, a specific model for family engagement in child welfare decision making may provide helpful guidance on how to engage families; at the same time, no model works on its own, and any model needs to be embedded within an environment that makes it work. Accordingly, our review of the literature will not only look at findings but also search for factors specifying under which conditions an approach is effective or not. In particular, we wish to develop, modify and test our theory of change that advances family rights. To do so, we will delve more extensively into the processes through which and contexts in which family engagement contributes to or detracts from family rights.

Our experience in all these sectors of family engagement led to our reaching out for studies in the “scientific” literature and from other forums, such as family and child advocacy, administrative monitoring and practice guidance. This meant that we needed to pursue the “fugitive” literature that is often less accessible and has less apparent methodology. A major limitation of our study team is that we are all only English-speaking and from countries that Marie identifies as having child welfare systems of child protection rather than family support, community building or social development. In practical terms, the further development of the annotated bibliography will need to rely on contributors providing abstracts in English.

Thanks to the Information Center of the New Zealand Ministry of Social Development, a review was conducted of a number of databases: The Information Centre database, Informit, Sociological Abstracts, PsychINFO, ChildData, Index New Zealand, New Zealand National Bibliography, EconLit, Social Services Abstracts, International Bibliography of the Social Sciences, EBSCO MasterFILE Premier, Australia/NZ Resource Centre, and Gale General OneFile. Our main approach, however, to collecting studies has been snowballing, that is, pursuing leads on studies through our networks of scholars, activists, practitioners, policymakers, administrators and educators.

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