Case Studies

Critical Thinking in Child Welfare

We developed 23 scenarios that reflect best practices and expertise in child welfare. Our approach encourages child welfare staff to discuss the critical thinking involved in making complex decisions.

Domain: Child Welfare

Focus: Decision Making; Prioritizing


Improve critical thinking in the highly-proceduralized and high-stakes domain of front-line child welfare investigation as workers make decisions about how to protect children.


Our team collaborated with the Annie E. Casey Foundation and skilled practitioners at public child welfare agencies to create a cognitive skills training program. The program includes 23 high-challenge scenarios that illustrate common child welfare themes such as domestic violence, substance use, and physical abuse. Our scenarios reflect best practices and expertise in child welfare and provide an opportunity for child welfare staff to discuss the critical thinking involved in making complex decisions about child welfare.


ShadowBox is being used at the largest child welfare agency in Ohio for continuing worker education and for new worker training. ShadowBox is expanding to other regions, including rural counties in Northwest Ohio and Southeast Ohio. Findings from an evaluation study suggested that ShadowBox training improved critical thinking.

Background and Description

Frontline child welfare investigators must routinely make potentially life-altering decisions in situations with incomplete and sometimes contradictory information. Their role requires them to respond to allegations of child abuse and/or neglect and make determinations about child safety within a short period of time. When failures (such as a child’s death or undetected abuse) occur, they are high-profile and often spur an emotional outcry from the public. Knee-jerk reactions from public child welfare agencies often result, such as adding new rules, layers of oversight, and checklists or other ways of proceduralizing decisions. These solutions can have an unintended side effect of disempowering workers from making decisions that reflect their unique understanding of the families they work with.

ShadowBox collaborated with a large non-profit organization to address the perceived lack of critical thinking in frontline decision making. From 2014 to 2019, ShadowBox developed a library of 23 case scenario exercises that reflect best practices in child welfare. To develop scenarios, ShadowBox personnel interviewed experienced practitioners from three different counties across the country. Child welfare experts with a broad range of experiences vetted our scenarios and provided their perspectives about key decisions.

Another major component of our child welfare effort was implementing ShadowBox training into practice with two child welfare agencies. The collaborative team carefully considered and tested various approaches and incorporated multiple rounds of feedback from participants. Agencies determined that meeting once per month in small groups led by a skilled facilitator was the optimal approach. ShadowBox personnel trained a selected group of workers, supervisors, and managers from the two agencies to facilitate ShadowBox small groups. We also engaged agency leadership to plan for the sustainability of the ShadowBox effort.

Next, our team collected data from a six-month implementation period. Participants in ShadowBox training showed an average of 13% improvement from the pre-test (administered before participating in ShadowBox sessions) to a post-test (given after the final session). Participants in the training reported high degrees of satisfaction with the facilitator-led discussion and indicated that the training scenarios were realistic and challenging. Common feedback from participants was that they found it valuable and interesting to engage in peer-to-peer discussion.