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Francesca Östberg

About me

My research and teaching includes Social Work, Child Welfare, assessment in Child Protection, and social work organization. I have written about assessments, decisions and interventions in Child Welfare and in the disability field. 


A selection from Stockholm University publication database

  • Reflection groups using Vignettes – a method to deepen professional knowledge

    2014. Francesca Östberg. Third International Conference on Practice Research June 9-11, 2014


    Reflection groups using Vignettes – a method to deepen professional knowledge

     In the pursuit of integrating practice and research a successful method has been created that uses a research technique (the Vignette method) as a way for practitioners to come together and reflect on their own practice. Over 600 professionals from the social services, nursery schools and schools have participated in these Reflection groups. The aim of Reflection groups using Vignettes is a way to elucidate practice knowledge in social work by critical reflections and research techniques. Assembling social workers exclusively or together with other professional partners in reflection groups together with a researcher creates new knowledge. Typical cases with problematic situations or episodes are described in intensifying sequences. Each sequence demonstrates information crucial for assessments and decision making. Questions are put to each vignette on how to go about in the case and why. Thus comparisons can be made on social workers attitudes and work procedures as they are put in front of the same information. Themes that arise in the group process are put together and with the help of the researcher linked to theoretical concepts and current research. By using an example from a reflection group with vignettes about a Child Protection investigation in an ethnic minority family, issues on ethnic sensitivity in social work are discussed. The method becomes a tool for making visible ethnocentrisms, prejudices about gender, class and sexuality as well as hidden structures in the work process. The overall aim is to develop assessments in Child Protection investigations.  



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  • Using ‘Consensual Ideology’

    2014. Francesca Östberg. British Journal of Social Work 44 (1), 63-80


    This article discusses the factors that influence decision making in front line child welfare in Sweden and the implications for different groups of children, types of social problems and for the character of the work. Data stem from a study of social workers’ handling of reports and requests that were followed until interventions were decided upon or cases closed without ntervention. Risks were found to be considered in a narrow perspective. Though Swedish child welfare has been recognised as a family service system, need aspects are down-prioritised. Gender-related attitudes are reflected in the labelling of ‘capable’ mothers and in the higher probability of girls being investigated. In deciding eligibility to scarce services of the ‘right’ clients, high work pressure creates a focus on gate-keeping activities and the attitude is to keep children out of the system for their own good. This crucial sorting process displays the pattern of a heavily tapered funnel with few interventions at the end. Put into an institutional context, social workers’ discretion can be explained as a rational way for practice to handle organisational limitations, restricted resources and changing policies. Demands of protection and welfare issues are handled by individualising difficult social conditions and by ‘consensual ideology’.

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  • Child Welfare and Child Protection: Differences and similarities in policy and practice in Sweden and Great Britain

    2012. Francesca Östberg.


    Child Welfare and Child Protection: Differences and similarities in policy and practice in Sweden and Great Britain

    Results from research on front line practice in Child Welfare in Sweden and in Child Protection in Great Britain have shown interesting similarities in spite of differences in policies and general welfare. Drawing from my own study and two British ones practice strategies to handle policy are discussed. In recent years there have been changing policies in Great Britain to support The Child Protection Services from a protection approach to a more Child Welfare one. However researchers show that the notion of risk is still central and a precondition for interventions as well as for services. They argue that the so-called risk-discourse will lead to more families being referred and investigated and less given help and support. In Sweden Child Protection has been conceived quite differently, with fewer laws dealing specifically with child abuse and neglect, problems that are not a typical reason for providing child-welfare services. The preventive approach implies that investigations are not limited to cases of suspected maltreatment. They may also be initiated if needs of services is assessed as well as by an application from a parent or a child. Policy changes in Sweden have been reversed to them in Great Britain and Child Protection issues are nowadays more stressed acknowledging the best interests of the child. British researchers argue that focus on protection makes social work more investigatory and procedurally driven with more families being referred and resources allocated to the sorting process, thus draining time and resources from prevention and family support. In Sweden as in Great Britain the accountability of social work has been questioned. The critique in Sweden concerns the variety of procedures as well as deficiencies in documentation and reviews leading to a lack of knowledge on the effects of interventions as well as risks of missing maltreated children.

    In the ambition of a more systematic, child focused and evidence based social work Sweden has implemented a Swedish variant of the English system The Integrated Children´s System (ICS) by the National Board of Health and Welfare, Children’s needs in focus (BBIC). It has been adapted to Swedish law and practice and a majority of Swedish municipalities are now licensed to use it. On the whole implementation has been a success, mostly because the profession itself has been a driving force in testing and implementing BBIC. However real knowledge on how it has affected social work is lacking as no thorough evaluation has been done.

    Demands on accountability make social workers ‘risk concerned’. Structured systems for documentation and tools for practice built on scientific knowledge is a way for practice to handle expectations on them to identify those children at greatest risk. The question can be put if more structured procedures and risk-assessment tools will lead to better targeting and a possibility to create necessary resources to develop family support services. Swedish as well as British local studies of practice show that a lot of energy in Child Welfare is put down in gate-keeping activities, with few decided services in the end. 


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  • När man misstänker att barn far illa

    2012. Francesca Östberg, Åsa Backlund, Stefan Wiklund.


    The overarching aim of this report was to gain knowledge on how mandated reporters from different professional fields (staff in child health care, pre-school and school)  reason and act in case of child maltreatment suspicion of children 0-12. The principal research method was focus groups (n=3) in which participants were discussing themes in accordance with study objective. The groups were homogenous in terms of professional field affiliation and consisted of 8-9 participants in each group. The mode of analysis was qualitative. 

    The main finding of the study is:


    • Mandated reporters from each professional field extensively regard preventive and supportive work with children living in adverse family conditions as an important objective of their own professional commission. The preventive and supportive role has often the objective to increase or maintain stability in brittle family relationships. In this work, parental relationship is often considered a key to accomplish this objective. The preventive and supportive roles vary somewhat between mandated reporters in the three professional fields, partly depending on their respective official mission and working methods.


    • In terms of factors relating to the organizational setting of mandated reporters, no consistent strategy to inform and support children who actually were referred to children protective services (CPS) was identified. Collaboration with CPS on children at risk was considered to be important, and the personal contact with a specific case manager seemed to be essential.  Experiences in this respect varied among all mandated profession from very positive to very negative. To increase reporting, several participants in the focus groups stressed the importance of incorporating information of mandated reporting in their respective professional education. Further, many emphasized the necessity of having competent and adequate support within the organization. During the focus groups, in became evident that guidelines (or their interpretations) varied and the results suggest that particularly guidelines on how to act in relation to severe abusive parental behavior may need some consideration.



    • Filing a referral to CPS is often considered as a substantial risk by mandated reporters in terms of improving the situation of the child. This conceived risk consists principally of jeopardizing the trust of parents. Several professionals had experiences of parents resigning or withdrawing their child from child health care, pre-school and school as a consequence of filing a referral.      


    •  Two different approaches to mandated reporting were evident in the professional fields. Some professionals were ‘formal’ in the sense that every suspicion of child maltreatment was referred, at least rhetorically.  In contrast, others had more of an ‘assessment’ approach, which may involve evaluations of the emergency of the case as well as contemplating expected benefits of CPS interventions. Further, the assessment approach also included considerations of ‘sticking to the child’ within the own professional domain and deliberating referrals to alternative service providers (e.g.  non-authorative service providers within personal social services).  Potential child welfare problems that were considered as particularly difficult to assess varied between the mandated professions (e.g. parents who did not show up in child health care; parents engaged in custodial conflicts in pre-school and truancy in school). Strategies to deal with such cases, however, were quite similar, i.e. trying to get a second opinion and trying to receive additional information about the situation of the child (e.g.  by increasing parental contacts).


    The results of the study have been interpreted by concepts and perspectives in organizational theory. CPS, Child health care, pre-school and school may be considered as actors in an organizational field with a common objective to strengthen life ‘here and now’ and the development of children. In relation to such objectives, different notions of the mandated professions responsibility versus CPS responsibility – so called domain conflict – may occur. Our results suggest that such domain conflicts often are at hand, but the focus groups also displayed examples of what could be considered as integration between the logics of mandated reporters and CPS (e.g. by regularly inform parents of the mandated responsibility rather viewing reporting as a the last option). The quality of the collaboration with CPS seemed to be an important component for such an intertwining of the logics of CPS and the logics of mandated reporters.    

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  • Bedömningar och beslut

    2010. Francesca Östberg (et al.).

    Thesis (Doc)

    The focus of this thesis is on social workers’ role in assessing and making decisions in child welfare cases. The primary aim is to identify factors that influence decisions concerning reports assessed, investigated, dismissed or processed to intervention within child welfare agencies in Swedish municipalities. Social policy, professional and organisational factors are perspectives considered in the analysis.

    All reports and requests for support for children and adolescents in the 0–19 age group were collected during two months in two local agencies, in 2003 (n= 260) and followed by interviews with social workers. Factors connected to social workers’ assessments at different stages in the process were tested in regression models and grounds for their assessments explored.

    Main results: two-thirds of reports are sorted out without investigation. One-fifth led to interventions. The highest probability for a report to be investigated was if it was assessed as acute, concerned abuse, came from a professional (not the police) concerned a girl and handled in the integrated agency. The most common problems, such as family conflicts and antisocial behaviour were investigated the least. A majority of the children came from underprivileged families, mainly poor single mothers.

    The process draws the pattern of a heavily tapered funnel with few interventions at the end. Children are not in focus and the attitude is to keep them out of the system for their own good. Social policy and organisational factors restrict social workers’ discretion. Contradictory demands are solved by a ‘consensual ideology’. Parallel tracks appear on risks in a narrow perspective and on voluntary counselling mainly directed to mothers. This forms child welfare into a rejecting practice, where hard social conditions are individualized. Legislation gives municipalities considerable leeway to produce a variety of services and interventions, but practice works on the basis of another kind of rationality.

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  • Barnavårdsutredningar i sex kommuner

    2000. Francesca Östberg, Eva Wåhlander, Pia Milton.


    The aim of this study is to describe, analyse and compare different models of child welfare investigation and assessment of families. We selected six local authorities and used vignettes to study investigation/assessment procedures for families with children age 0–12 years, that were reported to the authority for child maltreatment. Each of the local authorities had, in one way or another, attracted wide spread professional attention due to their use of certain models of social work with children.

    The study aims to answer the following questions:

    • Do local authorities use more or less standardardized models in child welfare investigation and family assessment?

    • If yes, how can these models be described?

    • Does the process of the investigation/family assessment vary with the choice of model?

    Results reveal certain patterns in child welfare investigations, mainly based on how local child welfare work is organized. But there are also wide variations between local authorities with similar organisations and even with the same choice of models. Also, there are great variations within most local authorities, regardless of how they are organized or what model of investigation/assessment they use. Results suggest that professed use of a ”model” in investigation/assesment work does not necessarily lead to daily child welfare work becoming more predictable. That is, a child welfare report can generate different investigation processes and outcomes within a local authory, even if social workers claim to use a specific model in their work. A ”model” should be understood as a basic orientation with considerable variety. If a ”model” in child welfare work is defined as a standardized, replicable method of investigation/assessment and decisionmaking, producing a predictable process or outcome in child welfare investigations – then there are no models. One way to study investigation/assessment work in child welfare is to focus the organizational context. In this study we have categorized organisations with a sub-unit doing only investigative work as specialised organisations and organisations where the social worker investi73 gate/assess as well as give advice, administrate placements in care etc. as integrated organisations. Results vary between social workers in specialised and integrated organisations. Social workers in specialised organisations tend to start investigations sooner, use more coercive actions and strive towards ”harder” interventions in the form of placements in residential and foster care. Social workers in integrated organisations tend to vary more in their decisions, and favour mostly in-home-treatment. The study points toward a lack of distinct concepts, assessment standards, predictable procedures and outcomes in child welfare investigations. Results indicate a professional uncertainty about central issues in this most formalised area of child welfare. Investigation procedures and outcomes seem to differ considerably between local authorities and individual professionals – that is depending on the geographic residence of the family and what social worker that is assigned to the case.

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  • Den nya frivilligheten

    1998. Francesca Östberg. Nordisk sosialt arbeid 18 (1), 2-9


    The new voluntarism.

    The article is based on an evaluation of the first two years of the Swedish volunteer centre Viljan. The aim is to arrive at a deeper understanding of the phenomenon of voluntary work based on the experience of one volunteer centre. The stydy comprised 39 users and 62 volunteers. Viljan's users consists of two main groups frail, elderly women and single mothers. The group of single mothers needed baby-sitters but also wanted an adult contact for themselves. It is difficult for Viljan to meet this need. The direction taken by Viljan has been a relatively traditional role of befriending the old and the sick, initially with strong control from the social services. All the interviewees were satisfied with the help they had recieved, but it was clear that they want more assistance and contact, which they do not dare to ask for out of fear if becoming a burden. Volunteers and the users appear to have the same needs for social contact which is why they turned to Viljan. There is a serious risk, however, that the volunteer centre may emphasize assistance to people to the expence of meetings between people and that the volunteers may be proffesionalized. The volunteers live all over the Stockholm area, few of them living close to the people they help. The volunteer centre can be seen as a modern welfare phenomenon, which make visible civic needs which the family, the public sphere and the private sphere have not been able to satisfy. Viljan appears to be able to fill this vacuum partially.

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Show all publications by Francesca Östberg at Stockholm University