Author Dr Mary Mitchell

Dr Mary Mitchell is a Lecturer in Social Work at The University of Edinburgh.

She has over thirty years professional experience in social work and community work, with a particular emphasis on work with children, young people and families. Mary has worked extensively in the voluntary, non government and government sectors in both Australia and Scotland. Mary’s current research interests lie in investigating Family group Conferencing as a decision making process for looked after children at risk of being accommodated and their families. Mary is particularly interested in looking at issues such as “who defines outcomes?” and the role of recognition in the process of Family Group Conferencing.

Whose outcome is it anyway? Rethinking ‘outcomes’ in child care and protection


Being outcome led is a primary concern for social work practice.  There is a need to address the priorities of vulnerable people within limited resource availability and organisations must be accountable for the services they deliver. Further, identifying good outcomes can help justify intrusion into an individual’s life. Yet what are and how should they be identified and measured in social work practice? It’s not rocket science, is it? An outcome is the result of a chain of events; or is it?

 Historically, child welfare outcomes have been identified and measured primarily by professionals and the organisations for which they work. Yet my own and others’ empirical research suggests that children, families and professionals can have different ideas of what outcomes are.  Who defines outcomes and to what purpose are key elements of the power balance between families and professionals. I believe it’s time for us to start to rethink outcomes and how we use them in child care and protection.

 There are a number of ways in which academics, policy makers and practitioners  problematise outcomes in child care and protection: the tendency to seek easier quantifiable measurable outcomes rather than qualitative ones; the linear assumptions of causality and association; the misleading separation of process from outcome identification; and the normative assumptions underpinning outcome measures which might limit understandings of a child’s progress. These problems can impede outcome recognition and have the potential to affect the ways in which work is done with children and families.

 Thinking about outcomes requires considering the way in which organisations work with each other and service users in identifying and achieving outcomes. A broader conceptualisation of outcomes is warranted, where the perspectives and experiences of children and adult family members are seriously considered alongside those of professionals and the organisations for which they work, as these subjective perspectives can provide valuable outcome information. It is suggested that outcomes are termed ‘personal’ and /or ‘professional’ to help understand what and whose outcome is being considered.  Re-imagining outcomes in this way can support a broader, more nuanced understanding of the complex experiences of those involved in child care and protection work, whilst ensuring the perspectives of individual’s receiving support are meaningfully considered alongside those of the professionals delivering services.


Click here to read Mary's research briefing paper for her forthcoming article: "Reimagining child welfare outcomes: Learning from Family Group Conferencing” for Child and Family Social Work.