Saving children in the 1990s: Social workers' constructions of child maltreatment

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Social Sciences


Robert C. Bogdan


Social workers, Child maltreatment

Subject Categories

Social Work


This study applies a social construction framework to understand the meanings social workers attach to child maltreatment. The purpose was to ask social workers about their work experiences when they encountered issues of child maltreatment, and to draw preliminary conclusions on the meanings they attached to child maltreatment.

The social construction framework used in this research relies on symbolic interactionism, which is based on the premise that people create meaning through interactions with people, events, and objects they encounter in their lives. Open-ended interviews constituted a primary resource for data collection in order to study the experiences of individual participants, enabling participants to use words and language that were meaningful to them. Twenty-five social workers who earned their Masters in Social Work were selected for interviews. Data analysis for this study was inductive; the interviews were interpreted through a personal, professional and theoretical lens.

All the social workers interviewed for this study interpreted child maltreatment somewhat differently from one another, but they understood child maltreatment in four major ways. First, they described how they identify types of child maltreatment. Every social worker talked about types of maltreatment, and the examples they gave divided into the four categories of physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. Although they agreed on the types, it was not so clear from the interviews how social workers knew that a child was maltreated, especially when it concerned sexual abuse. Second, social workers mentioned the process of reporting families to Child Protective Services. Third, social workers attributed causality for the maltreatment and for the most part blamed parents for individual problems such as substance abuse, a disability, or lack of economic resources. Finally, social workers' constructions of child maltreatment included the types of intervention they recommended for children and families when they identified maltreatment.

Many social workers talked about the ambiguities of identifying child maltreatment. In many cases these ambiguities caused anxiety because they came into conflict with state law and professional expectations. As government policies and child maltreatment researchers try to narrow the task of identifying child maltreatment, this study shows that different interpretations of child maltreatment do exist, and social workers need to directly address how they understand child maltreatment.


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