|Leadership In Child Protection (Introduction)|
Child protection, from a national and state perspective, is a self-perpetuating loop. Legislators accept public responsibility for abused and neglected children. Laws are enacted. Administrative rule-makers, in turn, publish detailed instructions cataloging the do's and don'ts for workers in the child protection system. Local administrators then manage the resulting programs and services, emphasizing compliance with the rules.
Sooner or later, there is a critical incident. The system fails. Screaming headlines decry the tragedy. The public is indignant and outraged.
Local child protection agency administrators argue that the failure was not their fault. They responsibly followed the rules. The rule-makers argue that they are, likewise, not at fault. They faithfully codified the legislative intent. The spotlight of public opinion then refocuses on legislators, with impassioned demands for reform and sweeping change.
Existing laws are revised. New legislation is enacted. Added rules are more exacting. Vulnerable children are safer.
In each iteration of the self-perpetuating loop, legislators are increasingly prescriptive. Child protection laws are more inclusive. Administrative rules are more restrictive. The enhanced legislation leaves little doubt about exactly how the law-makers expect child protection workers to carry out the legislative prescription. Despite the best of intentions, though, there are further critical incidents.
Throughout this iterative process, child protection is everyone's responsibility but failure to protect children is no one's fault. It is a system failure with no culpability.
The primary public value driving the child protection system is keeping our children safe. The public wants its vulnerable children protected, wants them kept out of harm's way. To that end, laws are passed and resources are appropriated. Rules are written and directives are given. Programs are developed and services are provided. Despite this sincere commitment and massive effort, though, children are still harmed, costs escalate, and the public is frustrated and outraged. 'Why aren't our children kept safe?' To fully answer this question, it is necessary to expand this narrow perspective to include the child, the family, and the community.
Children have needs, problems, and vulnerabilities that jeopardize their well-being. Unlike adults, though, children do not have the knowledge, skills, abilities, and resources to proactively manage this jeopardy. They cannot personally assure that their needs are met, that their problems are appropriately resolved, and that they are adequately protected from the myriad of conditions and circumstances to which they are vulnerable. As a response to the age-related jeopardy of children, each community funds and develops an array of services and resources specifically for children. Among these are schools, faith-based programs, health services, recreation facilities, mental health and substance abuse programs, police agencies, daycare services, public child protection agencies, and many others. Collectively, these programs and services represent the community's commitment to the well-being and long-term success of its children.
This array of services and programs in each community may be thought of as the Children's Safety Net. On the one hand, the Children's Safety Net provides services and resources to meet the individual needs of children and to resolve their unique problems. On the other hand, it compensates for the special vulnerabilities of children by standing as a guardian in harm's way.
Fortunately, the Children's Safety Net is in place. Unfortunately, it is incomplete and imperfect. It sometimes does not include the exact resource or specific service required to fully meet each child's particular need or to completely resolve each child's unique problem. Further, it cannot protect children from every risk to which they are vulnerable. Nonetheless, the Children's Safety Net represents each community's best effort to care for and to care about its children.
Parents are every child's first and most important resource. They meet their children's needs, help with their problems, and keep them safe. The Children's Safety Net is intended to supplement and increase the ability of parents to manage their children's age-related jeopardy. For children, the primary safety net is their parents. The Children's Safety Net provided by the community is, then, secondary and has a supporting role.
For most parents, their collaboration with the Children's Safety Net is adequate and very successful. Their children's needs are met, their problems are resolved, and they avoid the harms and dangers to which they are vulnerable. It takes strong parents and a strong community to protect a child and for most children, the strength is there on both sides of the equation.
As successful as the collaboration between parents and the Children's Safety Net is for most children, it fails for many. The reasons are varied and complex but in every case, the parents and the Children's Safety Net have each failed. The parents have failed to meet their children's needs, to resolve their problems, to keep them safe. The Children's Safety Net has not enabled the parents to succeed in meeting their obligations to their children.
An important reality in this shared failure is the simple truth that the success of families is the responsibility of parents. The Children's Safety Net can and does enable most families to be successful. Even so, it cannot prevent their failure anymore so than the fire department can prevent houses from burning when people do not follow normal home fire-prevention procedures or anymore so than the health care system can keep people healthy when they refuse to follow medical advice or cooperate with their health care providers. When parents will not or cannot do what is needed to succeed, they will fail. Neither the Children's Safety Net nor the community can prevent all parent failure. When parents do fail despite sincere efforts to enable their success, their children nonetheless have the right to succeed and the community has a responsibility to enable their success.
Recognizing that some level of shared failure is unavoidable, communities require participants in the Children's Safety Net and others in the community to notify the child protection agency (the agency) anytime parents have failed to meet their children's needs, to resolve their problems, or to keep them out of harm's way. Every community has a reporting process that identifies instances of known or suspected parent failure.
The majority of parent failure reports involve known or suspected neglect of children. Parents are thought to have neglected (failed) to meet their children's needs, to adequately resolve their problems, or to keep them safe. The neglect may be failure to appropriately supervise the child, failure to provide safe and adequate living conditions, failure to arrange for needed medical care, or other circumstances where the parents have not met their responsibilities as their child's primary safety net.
In a smaller number of the reports, a member of the child's household is known or suspected to have abused the child by causing serious physical or emotional harm. This includes any sexually oriented contact with the child by a parent or other person.
Still more children (dependent children) are at risk because their parents cannot care for them. Reasons include issues such as parents being in jail, substance abuse, mental illness, hospitalization, accidents, or parents otherwise being unable to care for their children. Additionally, many children are dependent simply because their parents refuse to care for them. For these parents, abandoning their children is preferable to coping with their unruly or delinquent behavior.
Abused, neglected, and dependent children in circumstances like these become the community's responsibility. The agency and other members of the Children's Safety Net work collaboratively to supplement and increase the parents' capacity to care for their children. This shared effort continues until the parents resume their primary role and succeed as their children's primary safety net. If they cannot or will not succeed within a reasonable amount of time, the agency identifies replacement parents (relatives or adoptive families) for the children. Alternatively, it provides or arranges for independent living housing and services for older adolescents.
When children's parents fail, their safety, permanence, and age-appropriate self-sufficiency become the community's responsibility. No single agency in the community can meet this extraordinarily complex challenge by itself. This simple truth notwithstanding, the Children's Safety Net can and must accept this critical responsibility, no exceptions, no excuses.
With the inclusion of children, parents, and the Children's Safety Net into the child protection system, the narrow perspective of a self-perpetuating loop is clearly insufficient. Added to this increasingly complex perspective are the important roles of the courts. (See the intervention cycle described in the first addendum to this introduction.) The agency is accountable for investigating reports of suspected abuse and neglect and for providing remedial services to parents. However, in most jurisdictions, the agency is not authorized to remove children from their homes when parents object to the removal. Rather, the agency must seek a court order and may proceed only based on such an order. The agency then must again seek a further order of the court to return the child to the parents when services are completed. If it determines that the parents cannot or will not make the necessary changes for their children to return home, the agency must then seek a court order either transferring custody to relatives or terminating all parental rights and ordering permanent custody of the child to the agency. Additionally, parents may, on their own initiative, seek a court order transferring custody of their children to the agency. Typically, this happens when parents decide that they cannot or no longer want to deal with the challenges presented to them by their unruly or delinquent adolescents. Finally, if the agency does receive permanent custody of a child and identifies a suitable family to adopt that child, both the adoptive placement and the adoption finalization must be approved by the court.
Beyond the inclusion of the courts in the child protection system, other people and organizations are included as a result of children being removed from their parents. Included here are grandparents and other relatives, foster and adoptive families, youth shelters, group homes, and other specialized facilities developed for the out-of-home care of children. At a minimum, then, the child protection system includes:
An Exacting Standard:
Other public agencies have safety-related responsibilities to the community. For example, fire departments are expected to investigate reports of fires and provide necessary remedial services. Generally, fire department personnel respond to a fire and do everything they reasonably can to put out the fire. Although they are usually successful, occasionally the fire regenerates and they have to go back to put it out again. If they followed procedures the first time, they are not held responsible for the second fire. Further, if fire department personnel are notified of a potential fire hazard and they take the normal steps to eliminate the hazard, they are not held responsible if there is a subsequent fire at that location. Having followed normal and accepted procedures is an adequate explanation for how the event was handled.
A police department is notified of a domestic violence incident. Officers respond, calm the situation, and arrest the perpetrator. Suppose that this individual is later released from custody and again assaults the same victim. Would it be reasonable to hold the police department responsible for the second assault? No, it would not.
In the child protection arena, however, the community imposes a far more exacting standard. Once the agency becomes aware that a child is being abused or neglected or is, in the opinion of others, at risk of being abused or neglected, that child's ongoing safety and well-being is viewed as the responsibility of the agency. Should the child be harmed, the agency is, in most communities, held responsible if:
What's more, assigned responsibility continues for an indefinite time after the agency has terminated its involvement with the child and parents. It is a no exceptions, no excuses standard. It is also a standard which most public child protection agencies routinely accept, knowing that they cannot, by themselves, meet the standard. Nonetheless, the narrow perspective discussed earlier is pervasive. The persistent belief is that the agency is exclusively responsible for abused and neglected children. The reality is that it is only one component of the Children's Safety Net. Unless all components of that safety net function collaboratively, far too many children will not have their needs met, will not have their problems resolved, will not be safe. The public child protection agency cannot do the job by itself.
The Child Protection Linchpin:
The child protection system is multi-layered, multi-dimensional, and dynamic. Moreover, there are extraordinarily complex technical and adaptive issues throughout the system. In this context, technical issues are those that require well-considered rules, carefully developed instructions, and thoughtfully standardized procedures. They relate to the question, 'How can this be done better?' Adaptive issues relate to why it should be done. The knowledge, skills, values, attitudes, and capacity of individuals and organizations are the foundation for addressing adaptive issues. The adaptive challenge is to continuously improve the successful fit between the child protection system and the specific needs, problems, and vulnerabilities of abused, neglected, and dependent children.
Legislators and rule-makers can certainly support and facilitate child protection. They can assure adequate financial resources, provide legislative and administrative guidance, require specific actions, and mandate defined activities. They can and do impose technical solutions to anticipated issues and problems. Alternatively, they are significantly less able to impose effective solutions to adaptive issues and problems. There, creativity, continuous improvement, flexibility, informed judgment, and positive change are essential at the individual and agency levels. In practice, the part of the child protection system that exists 'above' the agency sincerely wants adaptive solutions and adaptive change but pursues this desire through technical solutions and approaches. Along with laws and rules, they offer technical assistance to the agency in an effort to change and enhance the system. The agency workers become more technically competent but the adaptive issues requiring adaptive change remain unresolved.
Children, parents, relatives, foster and adoptive parents, staff members of specialized facilities, and other members of the Children's Safety Net also provide technical assistance and suggestions to agency workers. The effort is to improve child protection and to encourage adaptive change. For the most part, though, these efforts are not particularly effectual. The adaptive changes in knowledge, skills, values, attitudes, and capacity to continuously improve are not evident. Everyone wants positive change but change is, at best, slow and at worst, nonexistent.
Despite the good intentions and best efforts of other individuals and entities in the system, technical problems will not be resolved and adaptive problems will not be reduced without the full cooperation of the child protection agency. There must be a proactive commitment to continuous improvement and excellence in all aspects of the agency and its operation. Further, that adaptive change must extend beyond the agency itself and embrace all participants in the Children's Safety Net.
When the question is, 'Who is responsible for abused and neglected children and who is at fault when they are abused and neglected?' the answer is 'Their parents.' A child's parents are the primary safety net. When the question is, 'Who is in the best position to minimize the abuse and neglect of children and to keep children from harm's way when parents fail?' the answer is, 'The Children's Safety Net.' The agency is only part of the solution, albeit arguably the most important part. Legislators and rule-makers, police and other members of the Children's Safety Net, relatives, foster parents and staff of specialized facilities, and the public can and do fill invaluable roles in the system; but the agency is the system linchpin. If the agency does the right things right, the first time, on time, every time, one child at a time, the abuse and neglect of children will not completely go away, critical incidents will still happen. Nonetheless, the community's children will be much safer. Their chances for permanence will be much higher. Their hope for age-appropriate self-sufficiency will be much more likely to be realized. If the agency does not achieve and sustain technical and adaptive excellence in all it does, abused, neglected, and dependent children will continue to suffer in proportion to the agency's contentment with business as usual.
The Strategic Triangle:
Throughout the book, emphasis is on the strategic triangle: value creation, enhancing the authorizing environment, and operational capacity building. An explanation of the three legs of the strategic triangle will be helpful here.
Stakeholders within the agency and external to it value the protection of children. Value creation, then, starts with supporting and increasing the level of importance that those stakeholders attribute to the agency and its activities. How well does the agency protect children? Beyond this fundamental value, the agency must encourage and, at times, create value for correlates of effective child protection. Included here are related resources and activities such as:
Enhancing the Authorizing Environment:
When the agency and its activities are legitimated and supported by elected officials, key stakeholders, other members of the Children's Safety Net, the media, and the general public, the authorizing environment is agency friendly. The agency has authorization to effectively address key issues and to take advantage of excellence opportunities. A commonly asked question is, 'How much authorization is needed to move forward?' Fortunately or unfortunately, the answer is, 'Enough.'
Accurately and consistently gauging how much authorization is enough is a core skill that distinguishes traditional public administrators from the new leadership. The traditional task of public administrators is to diligently and conscientiously implement applicable laws and administrative rules within the legislative and bureaucratic intent. Alternatively, leadership requires a sustained effort to build individual relationships with all authorizing stakeholders. Leaders constantly assess the authorizing environment, assure that stakeholders have accurate and complete information, and attend carefully to the changing needs of that environment.
Leadership also requires risk-taking. Leaders must know when to move forward and when to consolidate past advances before moving forward. They have to carefully assess how much pressure the environment can productively tolerate, internally and externally. They then need to maintain that vital level of pressure required to support the new adaptation, no more, no less.
This is not especially difficult or risky, if the leader never makes mistakes, never confronts controversial issues, never makes unpopular decisions, never disappoints influential people, and never pursues change faster or in directions that cause discomfort. Under those restraints, the authorizing environment would be quite stable.
If, instead, the leader does make occasional mistakes, does irritate and frustrate people at times, and does make unpopular decisions and take controversial actions in children's interests, the authorizing environment can become very volatile. At those times, the leader must draw on authorization reserves. Along with authorization when things are going well, leaders must maintain authorization reserves for the more difficult times that inevitably come. This means that continuous enhancement of the authorizing environment is not only a good idea, it is required just to stay even. To achieve excellence in child protection, it is absolutely essential.
Operational capacity building:
Operational capacity refers to the internal and external resources required to do what needs to be done. This includes enough people who have the necessary skills and competencies as well as sufficient access to needed hard and soft resources. Moreover, both internal and external people and resources are required to adequately and appropriately protect children. No single child protection agency has the internal or organizational capacity to do the job alone. It requires the collective resources and efforts of every participant in the Children's Safety Net where the bottom line is keeping our children safe. Continuous capacity building is not just important; it is the essential difference between agencies that achieve excellence and those that do not.
Which is more important: value, authorization, or capacity? The reality is that without value, there will be no authorization. Without authorization, there will be no capacity. Without capacity, the agency will produce nothing of value. If nothing of value is produced, there will be no authorization.
Unless a child protection agency's commitment is to aggressively pursuing all three legs of the strategic triangle concurrently, the effort will fall short and the children for whom it is responsible will not be kept safe. What's more, to achieve the level of excellence the children deserve and must have, agency leadership must be:
The Intervention Cycle
1. The agency receives a report of child abuse or neglect from the community. (The steps in the typical process cycle described here are from Ohio's process and may vary in other locations.) The agency does not have the authority to initiate an investigation or an assessment without a request from the family or a report from the community.
2. The investigation is initiated within one to twenty-four hours of the receipt of the report, depending on the severity of the report.
3. The report is thoroughly investigated and assessed by conferring with the reporter and by interviewing the alleged victim, all members of the victim's household, the alleged perpetrator, and when appropriate, the schools, neighbors, law enforcement officials, etc. (If the report is not supported by the investigation, the agency's involvement with the family terminates at this point.)
4. The risk of future abuse to the child is assessed using a combination of a risk assessment tool and professional judgment.
5. If an ex-parte order of custody is granted, within twenty-four or seventy-two hours (if removal occurs over a weekend or holiday), the juvenile court holds a hearing to determine whether either continuing the agency's temporary custody, awarding custody to a relative or other appropriate caretaker, or returning the child to his family and requiring protective supervision by the agency is warranted.
6. If the court determines that continuing agency involvement is warranted either through continuing temporary custody or protective supervision, a case plan is developed including the agency, the child's parents, and the guardian-ad-litem, setting forth the activities that need to be performed by each party in order to achieve full 'reunification' of the child with his parents. (The activities in the case plan are time limited.) If there is disagreement among the parties regarding the contents of the case plan, the court holds a hearing to resolve the differences. Once finalized, either through agreement or court decision, the court journalizes the case plan, giving it the status of a court order.
7. During the sixth month following the journalization of the case plan, a formal 'semi-annual review' is held to assess progress on the case plan. Agency representatives, the child's parents, the guardian-ad-litem, the child (if he is old enough to understand), foster parents if the child is in foster care, relatives, child serving and treatment professionals, and others delivering services in accordance with the case plan attend this review. Decisions, based on case plan progress and level of risk, may include:
8. Prior to the twelfth month, the agency must assess progress on the case plan to determine whether or not the agency should file for permanent custody. At the point a child has been in custody for any 12 of the past 22 months, the agency shall file (absent compelling reasons) and the court may permanently sever all parental rights.
9. During the twelfth month, the court holds another dispositional hearing. Again, all parties are present for the hearing and represented by legal counsel. At this hearing, the court may order:
My name is Trista Bearden and I am a Casework Supervisor at Lorain County Children Services (LCCS). I am a resident of Lorain County and a parent. I have been employed by Children Services for almost six years. I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do seven years ago when I graduated from Baldwin-Wallace College with a bachelor's degree. I worked briefly as a private investigator before being offered a job at Children Services. I had an awareness of the issues involving child abuse and neglect in our county, as I had served as a guardian ad litem for three years. Ultimately, I took a job as a protective services caseworker. After two years, I went on to get my master's degree from Case Western Reserve University.
During my six years of employment, I have seen a number of staff come and go. I can honestly say I have never met a staff member at Children Services who has come with the intention of doing anything less than their best. Being a child protective worker is a job where the telephone becomes an extension of the worker's body, the automobile becomes an office and sometimes a sanctuary, and paperwork becomes as overwhelming as climbing Mount Everest. And yes, it is hard, it is stressful, and it is painful at times. I have walked into a child's home where there was no food, no electricity, no running water, and the roaches had the run of the house. I have gone to the drug store to purchase a lice kit and showed a parent how to use it. I have begged to have a family put on the top of the waiting list for housing. I have bargained with a utility company to avoid having a family get their gas shut off in the middle of winter. I have sat with a family for hours in a clinic waiting for the doctor to see their child. I have visited emergency rooms and viewed the broken bones and the bruises. I am not alone.
I have been awakened at midnight to go to a police station to pick up children who had no place to go because their mother had just gotten arrested for drug abuse. I have sat through a child's painful disclosure that her father raped her repeatedly for the past five years. I have driven a mother and her two children to a safe haven after her boyfriend gave her a black eye and busted lip and I watched while she returned to him two weeks later without her children. I have testified in court that it would be in children's best interest to have their parent's rights severed forever. I am not alone.
I have held countless children in my arms from birth through eighteen years old. I have cried with them and I have cried for them and they have each touched me in some way. And, when the tears were all gone, I have laid my head on my desk in sheer exhaustion before lifting it to start again. I have had days when I left work early because the stress became overwhelming and I have returned the next day to start again. I am not alone.
I have been told countless times 'I could never do your job' and 'it must be depressing.' Why do I do it? I love it. I love that on Monday's at 10:00 AM in Judge Horvath's courtroom, I get the pleasure of sharing in the moment that a family comes together through adoption and a child has a permanent home. I love that at Christmas, I get to share in the delight of delivering our community's generous donation of gifts to our families and children. I love that every now and then I get a school picture in the mail of a child I had closed on my caseload a few years ago, with a note from their mom about how well they are doing. I am not alone.
I love working with families and children. Our families are interesting, resourceful, and diverse. Our children are beautiful, bright, and sensitive. I am blessed to have the opportunity to work with a staff comprised of dedicated, caring, and committed people. I am not alone.
I do it because:
I am not alone.
|By Dan Schneider, Gary A. Crow, Patti-Jo Burtnett March 23, 2017|