Help-Seeking Decisions and Child Welfare. An exploration of situated decision making

Broadhurst, Karen (2005) Help-Seeking Decisions and Child Welfare. An exploration of situated decision making. Doctoral thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

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Family support services aim to support parents and carers with the task of bringing up children; these services consistently report problems, however, in attracting helpseekers. Despite recent developments within child-welfare towards the provision of family-friendly services, self-referral rates remain low constituting at best 30% of all referrals. Agencies also report that families are reluctant to take up services following third party (frequently professional) referral. Despite these consistent findings the extant literature on help-seeking offers few insights into how social actors, in the face of family problems, make choices between the available sources of help. Within the extant literature studies consistently report that families prefer `informal' support but few insights are offered about how such decisions are made and how preference is organised in relation to diverse sources of support. In this thesis and focusing on talk about `help-seeking' in focus group and interview settings, analysis centres on exploring the accountable properties of situated decision-making. From analysis of situated talk, the study offers insights and raises questions for further research that may assist family support agencies to more appropriately tailor their services to meet the needs of service users.

The present study is much inspired by the work of Harvey Sacks in particular his development of Membership Categorisation Analysis. In making use of Hester and Eglin's occasioned model of MCA (1997) it has been possible to explore practical reasoning in and through the local, sequential and categorical organisation of talk. Analysis of situated decision-making, in relation to the topic `help-seeking', finds decision-making a highly organised practical activity such that any social actor canmake an `educated' guess about who, another, would suggest as a first category for help. Research participants, in deciding who should hypothetically be approached first for help, constituted a socially sanctioned order to help-seeking characterised by first-position category pairs and last-position category pairs. Use of, or reference to, prior knowledge of help-seeking encounters was also identified as a key decision making resource.

This thesis concludes with a policy discussion and raises a number of speculative comments arising from the study that are relevant for the development of child welfare services. A number of avenues are suggested for further research, in particular questions are asked about the continued practice and emphasis within child-welfare services on professional social diagnosis, with the attendant neglect of help-seeking as a socially organised activity. The study suggests that future research might centre on further analysis of how `family support' is organised within the family and prior to professional intervention. It is also suggested that further research examine the possibilities of response to requests for help as a better starting point for service delivery, rather than professional detection of `problems'.

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