Mapping a county's child welfare prevention and service delivery network
Colvin, Marianna Lea
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Network analysis has distinctive utility for measuring, visualizing, and understanding interorganizational relationships and is well-matched for informing the complex interactions in contemporary child welfare practice. In this study, community-wide connections were examined through the lens of complexity theory and social network principles to enhance the understanding of child welfare efforts as they exist across organizations, and promote a holistic and interdisciplinary response to child maltreatment. Mixed-methods were integrated to analyze the structural properties of a county’s interorganizational landscape around 11 tasks, including referrals, case coordination, shared resources, and evaluation activities, among others. The study’s design allowed for a comparison across the dimensions of prevention and service delivery efforts and the benefits and challenges experienced when interacting within these structures were explored in-depth. Data collection included a survey instrument and qualitative interviews. Of the 105 organizations identified for inclusion, 80 participated in the survey and 67 provided qualitative data. The sample was bounded to match the county-level implementation of local child welfare services and to emphasize the complex context in which social interventions by and among organizations distinctly evolve and perform. Findings revealed differences in participation and network cohesion across tasks, including a dominance of referral activity. Structural and qualitative contrasts and similarities were evident between prevention and service delivery and a common thread of instability emerged across challenges. Network-wide benefits were also identified, in addition to organization-level benefits, and data suggested each were linked to serving clients and the community better. These and other findings are discussed for their applicability to inform network development in the community under study, as well as their broader policy, practice, and theoretical relevance. Directions for future research are detailed to promote systemic network research in child welfare settings and to further the use of network analysis as a means to empirically apply complexity theory and advance knowledge of the complicated practice and policy implementation systems that are paramount in the social work profession.