Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Social Work

First Advisor

Humberto Fabelo

Second Advisor

Melissa Abell

Third Advisor

Marilyn Biggerstaff

Fourth Advisor

Jaclyn Miller

Fifth Advisor

Michael Southam-Gerow


Child protective services begin with an intake (screening) decision to accept or reject maltreatment reports. This crucial decision may lead to significant positive or negative outcomes for children and families. Little is known about characteristics that intake decision-makers share or factors that influence the decision-making process. Racially-biased intake practices have been blamed for contributing to African American children’s disproportionate overrepresentation in the child welfare system. Concerns have emerged that social workers may hold negative stereotypes about African Americans and parents who use drugs. Stereotypical biases may influence decisions in reports alleging parental drug use and/or involving African American families. This study was conducted to examine the influence of race and parental drug-use allegations on intake decision-making. It was also conducted to identify factors that influence decision-making and to determine whether concepts drawn from naturalistic decision theory and attribution theory are relevant to intake decision-making. A conceptual model for describing decision-making was proposed and tested. Equivalent materials design was employed. Respondents completed an on-line questionnaire that included 24 vignettes describing hypothetical maltreatment concerns. Race and drug use were manipulated between two instrument versions. Respondents completed a 45-item scale measuring racial and parental drug use bias. They also described their application of policy to decision-making and the degree to which they engaged in different types of mental simulation (a naturalistic decision theory strategy) in making decisions. Eighty-seven child protective services intake decision-makers in Virginia participated (67% response rate). The findings suggest that respondents’ decisions were not influenced by racial bias but were influenced by parental drug use bias. Respondents’ parental drug use bias scores were higher than their racial bias scores. Social workers’ racial bias scores were higher than other respondents’ scores. A set of nine primary decision-factors used frequently in decision-making was identified. Finally, respondents reported using their discretion in adhering to CPS policy depending upon their concern for children’s safety. The research contributes to understanding the intake decision-making process. Findings related to worker characteristics, relevant decision-factors, and decision-making behaviors may influence practice and future research. Findings also suggest that naturalistic decision theory concepts warrant further attention and study.


© The Author

Is Part Of

VCU University Archives

Is Part Of

VCU Theses and Dissertations

Date of Submission

May 2009

Included in

Social Work Commons