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Police and Social Worker Perceptions of Child Maltreatment: An Examination through the Context of the Defund the Police Movements
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Over the past several years there has been a shift in the conceptualization of what police work ought to consist of, with some recent social movements such as “defund the police” arguing that social workers are better equipped to handle various societal issues such as homelessness, petty crime, mental health crises, and issues of family dysfunction. Despite this recent call for the reallocation of funds, there has not been a thorough analysis of how social workers and police officers perceive different behaviors and societal issues, and how their perceptions may inform their decision-making and subsequent action or inaction. Prior research has found that extralegal factors such as race, gender, demeanor, and personal characteristics of the perpetrator and victim have been shown to influence the outcome of police investigations. Law enforcement officers also have varying views regarding what qualifies as child maltreatment and have conflicting views as to what should constitute an arrestable offense. Similar findings have been found in the field of social work, as social workers have not been found to have uniform views regarding child maltreatment and have also been shown to make decisions based on extralegal factors such as race. However, other research has shown that consensus among the family and professional team and social worker experience has been shown to impact decision-making. Advocates of social movements such as defund the police have argued that social workers are better equipped to respond to various societal issues such as mental health, homelessness, and family issues because of their nuanced and solution-based approach, in contrast with the punitive approach often associated with law enforcement. Existing research has not settled the question of how social workers and law enforcement officers perceive behaviors similarly or differently—and thus has not settled which field would be better at handling specific complex issues. The study consisted of an online survey, a semi structured interview, and an online exit survey. Descriptive statistics, principal component analyses, and independent samples t-tests were used to analyze quantitative date. Results indicated that there is a significant difference between the perceived relevancy of morality in child maltreatment investigations between law enforcement officers and social workers. Thematic analysis of the semi structured interviews also revealed some differences between law enforcement and social worker perceptions for child maltreatment cases. Policy implications and suggestions for future research are discussed.