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 intervention. 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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