“Best interests of the child”: Inter-professional communication in the context of child protection in the courts

Mrs Kim Tomlian1, Dr Jonathan Crichton1, Professor Kurt Lushington1, Dr Sara McLean1

1University of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia


The work of psychologists, social workers and legal practitioners is inextricably linked in child protection. How well these professional groups communicate with each other is thought to contribute to the quality of court decisions and preventing child protection fatalities. Despite recommendations, inter-professional communication problems persist. The main aim of the current study was to focus on how the varied professionals who routinely come together in the context of child protection trials (from backgrounds of law, social work and psychology) communicate with each other to enable improvement in inter-professional communication, resulting in better outcomes for vulnerable children.

In this paper, I argue that an explanation for this communication problem lies in how different professional groups understand what is being communicated between them rather than the content of the communication per se. This may especially apply when constructs belonging to one professional discipline are used by another, such as the psychological concept of ‘attachment’ that is often a focus in child protection cases.

The methodology of this study was qualitative, combining psychology and applied linguistics. 11 professionals from law, social work and psychology who participate in child protection cases in an Australian Court participated in 8 group interviews over a 12 month period. Extracts from de-identified court transcripts were used as triggers to mutually explore the communication that occurs among professionals in the court (what is said and how it is understood). The group interview discussions were transcribed and iteratively coded to generate themes.

A main finding of this study is that professionals borrow words and constructs from each other’s disciplines but the intended meaning does not necessarily travel with them, causing communication problems. Other preliminary findings will be discussed as well as the interdisciplinary methodology that was used and that offers an innovative way forward for inter-professional research more generally.


Kim Tomlian is currently a part-time PhD student at the University of South Australia. She is also a Clinical Psychologist who has worked in the area of child protection in varying capacities for over 20 years. She has had first hand experience of working with this complex system and the other professionals involved. Kim’s current clinical work is predominantly with children who have been severely abused and traumatised. Kim is keen to make a broader contribution to the field of child protection through her research that examines inter-professional communication in the context of child protection in the courts.

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