Complexity theory: developing new understandings of child protection in field settings and in residential child care

Irene Stevens, Pat Cox

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    54 Citations (Scopus)
    33 Downloads (Pure)


    The protection of children, whether living at home or in residential care, is a core endeavour of residential and field social work with children. Yet, despite broad support from politicians, policy makers and the majority of the public for this work, child protection practice and practitioners are frequently criticized for perceived or actual failures to protect. Successive inquiries produce reports with similar recommendations, yet children continue to be abused and harmed, sometimes fatally. Clearly, better understandings and more effective protective practices need to be developed. Current research in the area of complexity theory is encouraging the development of concepts and applications which are powerful aids to understanding the issues that child protection practitioners experience daily. Child protection is not simple because of the multiplicity of factors that result in children being at risk. Complexity theory provides a framework for understanding the processes involved but without the problems of reductionism. The purpose of this paper, therefore, is to explore the potential contribution of complexity theory and concepts that have relevance to the protection of children in both field and residential child care practice. It is argued that complexity theory offers new and helpful ways to conceptualize and work with the processes which underpin keeping children safe.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1320-1336
    Number of pages16
    JournalBritish Journal of Social Work
    Issue number7
    Publication statusPublished - 2008


    • complexity theory
    • child protection
    • field and residential child care social work


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