Creating meaningful change: A critical realist study of the relationship between psychological empowerment and systemic reform in the Australian child protection system

Author: Amy Bromley

Bromley, Amy, 2022 Creating meaningful change: A critical realist study of the relationship between psychological empowerment and systemic reform in the Australian child protection system, Flinders University, College of Education, Psychology and Social Work

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In Australia, the proportion of children experiencing abuse and neglect continues to rise despite ongoing systemic reforms. Without an in-depth analysis of how systems change, there is the risk that future reforms will continue to be costly, ineffective, and leave children vulnerable to maltreatment. This thesis contributes originally to the growing body of knowledge by examining the relationship between the psychological empowerment of child protection practitioners and their response to systemic reform. I argue that ultimately children are protected by people, not systems. Therefore, to transform our systems we must empower the people working to protect children.

I used a mixed-methods explanatory design to analyse the child protection system. This created three distinct phases. In phase one, I constructed a quantitative survey from two measures: the psychological empowerment instrument and a measure classifying the variable responses of staff to innovations in systems. I analysed the survey responses (n = 106) finding separate patterns for how practitioners experienced the four sub-dimensions of psychological empowerment (meaning, self-determination, competence, impact). I also looked for connections, determining how psychological empowerment related to their responses to reform. In phase two, I interviewed a nested sample of practitioners (n = 19). I then analysed the results using a critical realist framework, identifying the structure, culture, and personal agency of practitioners within the child protection systems. Finally, in phase three I integrated the data to answer the research question and explain the findings of phase one.

The results of phase one found that child protection practitioners experienced the sub-dimensions of psychological empowerment differently. Competence developed steadily, with practitioners rating higher competence based on their length of experience as child protection practitioners. Their sense of impact on the child protection system remained low, only increasing when the practitioner moved into a management position. While practitioners initially felt that they had a good sense of self-determination, there was a notable decrease after their first year of practice. After this decrease, their self-determination increased as they gained further experience. Practitioners also found their work meaningful, and their sense of meaning was most predictive of their response to systemic reform. The qualitative results explained these findings, showing that the structure and culture of the child protection systems were both chaotic and rigid. As practitioners struggled to manage the ongoing chaos and function within the rigid constraints, they found creative ways to enhance their sense of psychological empowerment. Practitioners actively sought meaningful opportunities in their work and used their values as a benchmark for how to respond to systemic reform.

Ultimately, systemic reform does not happen in a vacuum. Any changes to the child protection system occur through the people working in the system. The practitioners in this study used their personal agency to resist or embrace systemic reform, affecting the final outcomes. Future reform efforts need to be relational, mission driven, and promote the expertise of practitioners rather than viewing them as simply another ‘part’ of the system.

Keywords: child protection, implementation science, systemic reform, child welfare, knowledge translation, trauma informed

Subject: Social Work thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2022
School: College of Education, Psychology and Social Work
Supervisor: Helen McLaren