Child Welfare Systems and Migrant Children: A Cross Country Study of Policies and Practices ~ Bruce Leslie Book Review

Bruce Leslie is a Child Welfare Consultant specialising in research, knowledge development and planning. He co-authored the chapter for Canada with Professor Sarah Maiter, Social Work Department, York University. Maiter, S. & Leslie, B. Child Welfare and Immigrant Families: Canada. p 179-198.

When working with the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto, Bruce was involved in numerous research studies looking to increase understanding and improve services. This book review highlights a very interesting project that involved an examination of child welfare responses to immigrant families and their children in eleven countries. Dr. Sarah Maiter at York University invited Bruce to co-authour the ‘Canadian’ chapter. Following publication of the book in 2015, Bruce wrote this book review that was published 2016 in the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies journal. In the review Bruce provides some secondary analysis from the countries participating that highlights some of the challenges of integrating policies into frontline practice.


Book Review

Child Welfare Systems and Migrant Children: A Cross Country Study of Policies and Practices. (Eds.) Skivenes, M., Ravinder, B., Kriz, K. & Poso, T. Oxford University Press. New York, 2015.

Migrant families have recently been receiving much public attention and media coverage and this new book provides timely insights into some of the present and historic challenges for migrant children and their families, especially with regard to child welfare services. Historically, colonialism, slavery, economics, imperialism, globalization, and trade liberalization, have led to people populating new countries.

In contemporary times, whether as a consequence of economic inequalities, wars or conflict, there have been movements of people across transnational borders in unprecedented numbers. (p 7)

This book was developed by the authors as part of a research study aimed at examining Norwegian child welfare service in relation to other countries, representing three predominant approaches to implementing child welfare services. Eleven countries participated – Canada, USA, England, Norway, Italy, Spain, Estonia, Austria, Finland, Australia, and Netherlands. Almost all the country authors in this book highlight that their populations are immigrant based except for indigenous people, with the percentage of the foreign born population varying from 26.8 (Australia)to 4.6. (Finland) – Canada 19.9.

The editors state that the aim of this book is “to examine where, why and how migrant children are represented in the child welfare systems in these countries.”

Country authors were directed to address five main areas., which most followed.

  1. Law and policy
  2. Organization of child welfare systems
  3. Training of frontline workers
  4. Representation of migrant children in child welfare systems, and,
  5. Frontline practices examined using a survey. Each country was asked to include frontline child welfare workers in a survey using vignettes assessing perceived risk, perceptions of the problem, and what they would do about the problem.

The issue of migrant children is becoming a critical issue globally. Even countries like Finland which have not seen many migrant children is now experiencing a growing influx. “..research evidence…across the globe is growing and suggests the need to take into account the effects of immigration status, the impact of migration and acculturation, families socioeconomic situation, and the need for comprehensive cultural assessments of children and families.” (p 6)

The editors identify that there is no universally accepted definition of “migrant” and is includes the following statuses in different countries –  documented, undocumented, international adoptee, displaced person, child trafficking, refugee, foreigners, born outside destination country, born in destination country. Within the countries included in the book, there are various characteristics and statuses given different unique groups identified as “migrants”, influenced by national policies and child welfare ideologies and system approaches.  The book editors….” understand ‘migrants’ as people who move across national boundaries for whatever reason.” (p1)

The editors recognise that more is known about child welfare systems in England, Canada, USA, Netherlands, Norway, and Finland through existing English writings and the chapter authors’ descriptions for the other countries provide a beginning outline of their systems. For this book the child welfare systems in these countries have been grouped according to characteristics identified by Gilbert et al. (2011) that range from “child protection systems’ to ‘family service systems’. A “child protection system” is characterised by a relative high threshold for intervention, with a focus on preventing and stopping serious risk that can harm the child’s health and safety. The “family service system” aims to promote a healthy childhood and prevent serious risk and harm and the state provides services to the child and family at an early stage of a risk situation to prevent its development into a situation of serious risk and harm for the child. Skivenes et al. (2015) describe the major differences between these two systems in their underlying ideologies and the way that they address children at risk.

Family service systems are concerned with the provision of services to families and are based on a therapeutic idea of rehabilitation and people’s ability to revise and improve lifestyle and behaviour. Thus, the basic notion is that the child welfare system should provide services to prevent more serious harm and thus prevent out-of-home placements. The threshold for intervention is low. The child protection systems, on the other hand, are not built around service provision to prevent possible harm but to intervene when there is serious risk of harm for a child. It follows that the threshold for intervention is high, and the goal is to provide services for a possible reunification. (Skivenes et al.,2015)

This classification was used with the addition of a separate category for Latino countries about which less is known. Although this classification was used by the editors it is acknowledged that the distinctions between the systems can become blurred and systems evolve. The table below shows the countries grouped by child welfare system.


Eleven Countries
Family service child welfare systems in social democratic welfare states  

Family service child welfare systems within conservative Latino countries


Child protection-oriented child welfare systems that operate within liberal welfare states






United States of America






The large variations in which countries are destinations for immigrants appear to have many influences that have changed over the years. Increasing numbers of immigrants in some countries is leading to national policy changes. The specifics of child welfare services in these countries appear only distantly influenced by such global normative structures as the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Children. All countries have federally mandated and locally delivered services. National legislation and policies are created within the different countries to direct and guide services and practices provincially and locally to support the welfare of children. Variations are evident nationally, provincially and locally, within and between countries.

Many country authors indicate the numbers of migrant families and children are growing and the need for awareness and sensitivity to their situations is becoming more of a priority for services like child welfare. These families present unique characteristics leading to practice and policy developments.

The worker survey completed in nine countries, including 900 workers, was informative and provided some grounded descriptions of practices with these families. A common finding was that the percentage of immigrant families and children involved with child welfare services is higher than the percentage in the general population. Frequently identified challenges, barriers and issues for migrant families were economics, housing, language, interpretation, schooling, credentials, support networks, losses, cultural clashes, different parenting expectations, legal status, racial biases, social exclusion, compatibility of immigration and child welfare policies. Workers’ increased ability to communicate in the same language as the migrants was noted as a particularly crucial and achievable practice.

Workers surveyed reported variations in familiarity with providing services to these families, mostly related to the percentage of such families in their jurisdictions, although almost all reported that they had responsibility for the welfare of the migrant children, regardless of status. When reviewing the responses to the survey questions, there were some variations in the assessment of risks and the chosen intervention of placement did not always seem to correspond to a higher level of risk. Variations did not appear to align with any of the three country categories.

This book provides some insightful perspectives into the variations in practices and policies at the intersection of child welfare services and migrant children and family experience. It allows a broader understanding of differences and similarities across countries experiencing a growing global phenomenon, and illuminates choices.

Bruce Leslie is now in private practice as a Child Welfare Consultant specialising in research, knowledge development and planning. He co-authored the chapter for Canada with Professor Sarah Maiter, Social Work Department, York University.

Maiter, S. & Leslie, B. Child Welfare and Immigrant Families: Canada. p 179-198.



Gilbert, N., Parton, N. and Skivenes, M. (2011) Child Protection Systems: International Trends and Orientations, New York, Oxford University Press.

Skivenes, M.& Skramsted, H. (2015) The Emotional Dimension in Risk Assessment: A Cross-Country Study of the Perceptions of Child Welfare Workers in England, Norway and California (United States).  British Journal of Social Work. 45, 809–824


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