Division of Attention and Division of Labor in Child Protection Services

Tuesday, July 15, 2014: 11:00 AM
Room: Booth 52
Oral Presentation
Stefanie BUECHNER , Organizational and Administrative Sociology, University of Potsdam, Potsdam, Germany
In recent years, the death of young children being processed as “cases” in youth service organizations (German: Jugendämter) has challenged politics and led to judicial and organizational reforms. Therefore, the vulnerable child has become a boundary object of risk management, prompting broad initiatives to improve child protection. This paper examines the introduction of special units or task forces in youth welfare organizations that deal with so-called risk-reports, mainly calls from citizens or institutions pointing to putative cases of children at risk. 

This paper focuses on two insights of a qualitative case study in three youth welfare organizations, two of which work with specialized risk units. This division of labor goes hand-in-hand with a new division of attention and offers insights for the study of risk in case-based human service organizations.

First, it can be shown that the establishment of specialized risk assessment and processing units surprisingly did not lead to an asymmetric relationship between the members of the specialized units and “normal” case workers. By contrast, both sides cooperate on a strongly collegial basis. The second finding points to the different modes that specialized risk units have developed. Whereas one task force works on a mode that can be characterized as “emergency service”, another defines their work close to what can be termed as “investigation service”. The former mode adopts a clear cut one-zero scheme of risk assessment and underlines people processing aspects of their work, whereas the contrary is true in the case of the latter. Here, the deep rules of the team state ambiguities and uncertainties as “normal” and reject clear cut risk assessments while underlining the people-changing aspects of their work.  These two arrangements in the distribution of attention through the division of labor lead to different forms of uncertainty and risk management.