Disciplined intuition: subjective aspects of judgment and decision making in Child Protective Services



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Texas A&M University


This qualitative study was aimed at developing an understanding of how persons involved in the investigation or deliberation of child abuse and neglect cases think and feel about the process of weighing evidence and drawing conclusions from it. Twenty investigators, supervisors, and administrators employed by the Child Protective Services agency in Texas were asked to describe cases they had investigated or reviewed that had been particularly difficult because of conflicting or ambiguous evidence. They were also asked opinion questions about the agency's actuarial risk assessment instrument and the concept of preponderance of evidence. Finally, participants were asked to respond to two short case vignettes describing allegations of sexual abuse. Constant comparative and narrative analysis of interview data revealed that the process of case deliberation in CPS makes use of both intuitive and analytic decision-making styles, and there is a general movement from intuition to analysis as a case ascends the decision-making hierarchy. This movement entails a shift from narrative forms of thought and an outcome-oriented ethic to analytic forms of thought and a rule-based ethic. Though intuitive decision making is at least partly guided from personal experience and personal values, and does produce error because of that, it is nonetheless a form of rationality as capable of being guided by scrupulousness and fidelity to truth as analysis is. The personal value and outcome-oriented ethic that intuition brings to the decision making process not only cannot be eliminated, it is necessary to the program's achievement of its mission. It is recommended that the training of new investigators should, first, acknowledge the large role that intuitive thinking plays in CPS decision making and, second, develop ways to help decision makers discipline intuition, in the words of one participant, and to create conditions that foster its optimal functioning.