Signs of Safety Research

Understanding the social worker–family relationship through self-determination theory

A realist synthesis of Signs of Safety

27 Jan 2022

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  • English



Signs of Safety (SofS) is a popular framework for child protection social work practice, used in more than 200 jurisdictions worldwide. Although workers tend to find SofS tools easy to use, skilled application of the approach is challenging, and research has found that SofS is often not implemented as intended. This study aimed to deepen and inform the explanation (initial theory) of what key SofS tools and processes are expected to achieve in the family–worker interaction and why. A realist synthesis was used, involving a realist review of literature and focus groups with 22 international SofS experts. Using self-determination theory, we detail how SofS can be conceptualized as aiming to support families to experience ‘autonomous’ rather than ‘controlled’ motivation by supporting basic human needs for ‘autonomy’ (feeling a sense of volition), ‘competence’ (feeling effective) and ‘relatedness’ (feeling cared for). This explanation can be used for training and evaluation purposes to better explain and test how SofS expects to engage families in the child protection process. More broadly, we suggest that self-determination theory may contribute a mechanistic explanation of effective social work practice more generally and that this hypothesis should be empirically investigated.


Child & Family Social Work 2022 1-13 (open access)

Last updated Thursday, 27 January 2022 9:23:43 PM