The New Leadership

To achieve excellence in child protection, understanding the strategic triangle discussed in the Introduction is not, by itself, sufficient. Value creation, enhancing the authorizing environment, and capacity building must be continuously monitored and measured. It is no longer enough to say, 'We think we are doing a good job.' The authorizing environment rightfully expects and demands more.

Recognizing this very legitimate expectation for factual information, the Public Children Services Association of Ohio (PCSAO) developed and implemented a strategy to ask the public what it values. In the past, public child protection agencies simply assumed that they knew what the public valued. Even worse, they behaved as if they were the experts on public value and were thus justified in telling the public what it should value. From that arrogant premise, agencies proceeded to do what they thought best, expressing confusion and dismay when the authorizing environment criticized their efforts and expressed intense dissatisfaction with their outcomes.

Measuring Public Value:

Breaking with the past, the PCSAO systematically pursued a new course. The public was asked to speak for itself, to tell the child protection system what it values, to tell child protection agencies what it expects.

The PCSAO conducted focus-group-based research, asking the public to tell the PCSAO what it thinks and what it expects. Participants in the study were first asked to share their attitudes toward and perceptions of child abuse and neglect. They were then asked to share their perceptions and expectations for public child protection agencies.

The research was divided into two phases. During the first phase, a uniform moderator's guide was developed. The guide was used in each focus group to assure inter-group consistency and to guide the discussion.

Focus group participants were recruited geographically from the general public. Potential participants who were either employed in child protection agencies or had some other current involvement with the child protection system were excluded. This was done to avoid the discussions being influenced by individuals who might be seen by other participants as having special expertise or inside knowledge. The intent of the study was to capture the ideas and views of the general public, not simply those of people with first-hand experience with the system.

Study participants were representative of the age, gender, geography, and cultural make-up of the specific counties where the focus groups were held. They were each paid a stipend to participate in the research. In part, this was intended to reimburse transportation and child care expenses.

Ohio is a very diverse state, with eighty-eight counties ranging from urban to rural. There are large metropolitan centers including Cleveland, Columbus, Akron, Toledo, Dayton, and Cincinnati. Even with these urban areas, agriculture remains the number one industry of the state. Twenty-nine counties, stretching from the eastern part of the state along the Ohio River southward to Cincinnati, are designated as Appalachian. Recognizing the state-wide diversity, the research hypothesized that there would be significant regional variations in participant attitudes and perceptions.

Eight focus groups were required to assure fair representation of Ohio's diverse public. Group meetings were held in Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland, the farming belt of northwestern Ohio, rapidly growing counties adjacent to metropolitan centers, and locations convenient for participants selected from the Appalachian counties.

What does the public value? What are the public's perceptions and expectations? Here is what they told the researchers.

There are no regional differences in what the public values, in what it perceives and expects. To the contrary, people throughout Ohio hold very strong and consistent views. When the issue is child abuse, the public speaks with a single voice. (As you will see in the first addendum to this chapter, this consistency is also present across the United States and is likely the same world-wide.)

The public does not make a clear distinction between child protection and the provision of financial aid and services to needy families. Further, both are perceived as government-run and, as such, garner little to no public confidence.

The public is concerned that government could dictate the manner in which they discipline their children and could intervene into the institution of the family based upon spurious reports. Specifically, they are concerned that child protection agencies may intrude inappropriately into families, with inadequate consideration for the rights of parents.

Concurrently, the most important child protection issue is the strongly held belief that all children should be safe. Comments like, 'You know abuse when you see it,' were common among focus group participants. The public also feels that people who do actually abuse children should be dealt with harshly.

The public has many child-protection-related questions and concerns. They expect better information and specific answers. This will, they believe, enable them to more capably evaluate the performance of the child protection system.

In response to the expressed information needs and the demand for specific answers, the study was expanded. Four additional focus groups were held for this part of the research, with appropriate attention to geographic and cultural representation. Certainly, the public is entitled to the information they expect as well as to complete and accurate answers to their questions. Pursuing this public entitlement, the researchers developed a process for focus group participants to rank, in order of importance, the issues raised in the first part of the study. In rank-order, the priority issues are these:

  • The safety of children is the most important child protection issue for the public.

  • Child protection agencies should maintain children within their families whenever possible, so long as the children are safe.

  • Whenever possible and safe, agencies should place children with other relatives, when the children cannot remain with their birth families.

  • The public is willing to increase taxes to increase the safety of children.

The public does, however, expect the child protection agency to fully account for the money currently available to it. Additionally, the agency is expected to be explicit and forthcoming about its plans for any additional tax money it may receive.

  • The public expects members of the Children's Safety Net to cooperate and collaborate.

The shared commitment must be to the safety of children and to the stability of families. Individual member interests and dedicated funding streams mean nothing to the public. It is the public's tax dollars being spent, whether local, state, or federal. Whatever the source or fund designation, the public's expectation is that all programs and services will be coordinated and unduplicated. What's more, they expect all tax-supported activities to reflect their central value: increasing child safety. Beyond that, the stability of families is to also be supported and nurtured, whenever possible and appropriate.

  • The public believes that child protection agency social workers are overworked, underpaid, and inadequately supported in their efforts to increase child safety.

  • The public believes that most foster parents are 'in it for the money.'

Multiple Jeopardy:

It is clear that the public's polestar for the child protection system is keeping children safe. From the perspective of the strategic triangle, the overriding public value is safety. The first priority for the Children's Safety Net must be assuring that children are kept from harm's way. The authorizing environment, then, demands that assurance as the quid pro quo for its authorization. The Children's Safety Net may continue to operate so long as children are kept safe. Should children not be kept safe, the ongoing support of the authorizing environment is in jeopardy.

Operational capacity within the Children's Safety Net may likewise be jeopardized if the public's expectations are not met. All members of the Children's Safety Net are expected to work cooperatively, to pool resources, to avoid duplication, and to meet the needs of children, without gaps in either the services or access to those services. If the public's expectations are met here, resources, including increased taxes, will be forthcoming, with one additional caveat.

The public holds child protection agencies and other members of the Children's Safety Net accountable for current resources available to them. They expect an accounting of what the money has been and is currently being spent for and what outcomes are achieved. Further, the public expects a full explanation of additional resource needs and anticipated outcomes. Meeting these expectations requires good data, agency self-evaluation, and clear, well-supported explanations. If these expectations are not met, operational capacity to do the critical work of child protection is in jeopardy.

How well do the Children's Safety Net in general and child protection agencies in particular meet public expectations? There is unfortunately not a simple answer to this central question. First, child safety is an absolute concept. If a child is abused or neglected, that child was not kept safe. It follows that, unless one hundred percent of children can be kept safe, the Children's Safety Net has, to some extent, failed.

Does child protection fair better within the authorizing environment? It does, since there is not a one hundred percent expectation here. Although even one incident where a child is seriously abused or neglected flies in the face of the primary safety value, the authorizing environment is less predictable. The fallout from a single incident or series of incidents is not automatic. Conversely, the support to be garnered through demonstrable successes and significant achievements is uncertain.

Perceptions and reactions within the authorizing component of the strategic triangle are complex and ever-shifting. Without doubt, though, they depend foremost on the level of critical media attention given to unfavorable incidents. This is especially true since the media seldom gives a similar level of attention to positive outcomes or admirable accomplishments.

Term limits, turnover in county and state administrations, as well as changing legislatures also result in fluctuations in the levels of support and jeopardy. The availability and unavailability of complete and accurate data and other information are additional variables in the authorizing equation. The skill and effectiveness with which interpretations of events, decisions, data, and pertinent information are shared with key individuals in the authorizing environment are similarly at issue.

Continuous uncertainty also characterizes the operational capacity component of the strategic triangle. As suggested earlier, it is not possible for child protection agencies and the other members of the Children's Safety Net to measure up to the 'Keep every child safe every time,' public expectation. It is equally impossible to garner support from every key stakeholder every time or even most of the time. There are always individuals and organizations in the authorizing environment who withhold needed support and resources. The result is that sufficient operational capacity is never certain.

Technical Solutions For Adaptive Problems:

Government's vision, especially at the federal and state levels, generally coincides with the length of its budget cycle: one year budget, one year vision; two year budget, two year vision. Because of the short cycle, there is a high sense of urgency to get results that the public can quickly see and easily understand. Government funding and new approaches to child safety are expected to achieve clear results within the vision of the appropriating body: usually one or two years.

Once more, child protection agencies and other members of the Children's Safety Net are predictably less than fully successful. Along with limited resources and less than optimal operational capacity, the results to be achieved ordinarily require both technical and adaptive change.

  • Many people and organizations within the Children's Safety Net have to modify and adjust their behavior and business processes.

  • New relationships must be forged and nurtured.

  • Training must be developed and delivered.

  • New accounting mechanisms may need to be developed, tested, approved, and implemented.

  • Performance measures likely have to be created, data collected and analyzed, and results reported.

New and significantly revised approaches to child protection always require adaptive change. Technical change usually accompanies the adaptive change but adaptation is the first and primary order of business. By definition, there is no routine or prescription for adaptive change. The path from the present to the future is vague. Cooperation among members of the Children's Safety Net is uncertain. Some level of opposition to the necessary change is a given, if only because the routine is known and the adaptation is unknown. The hard work of managing the change is often avoided.Even though these unavoidable characteristics of adaptive change are well-known to everyone involved, the high sense of urgency to get favorable results blinds otherwise rational people to these realities. An unfortunate consequence is that change processes that are primarily adaptive are most often viewed from a technical viewpoint. Their success is then evaluated as if there were a routine or prescription that is either followed or not followed. These troublesome dynamics and inappropriate perspectives will, at worst, guarantee failure and, at best, assure under-achievement. The promise and anticipation of positive change are quickly replaced by acceptance of mediocre performance.

To combat the acceptance of mediocrity, a new leadership for child protection must emerge. In turn, it must then receive support from all levels of the child protection system, including legislative bodies, related administrative bureaucracies, the courts, public and private agencies, the media, and the general public. There must, in turn, be a sustained effort to provide timely, honest, complete, and accurate feedback about progress (or lack of progress) to all stakeholders, with special attention to legislators and the general public. Additionally, stakeholders must be helped to understand and accept the simple truth that significant, adaptive change does not come quickly. To the contrary, important innovation and serious adaptive change always take longer and are less smooth than anyone expects.

There will inevitably be mistakes and occasional failures along the path to excellence, as promising innovations and new adaptations stabilize and become routine. The media and others pursuing their political agendas will continue to decry every mistake and point to it as evidence of incompetence.

  • They will express outrage with every failure and define it as a major crisis.

  • They will characterize themselves as champions of child safety and demand reform.

  • Concurrently, they will advocate for sweeping change based on their technical approaches and their technical solutions.

  • They know what is wrong and how to fix it.

Innovation And Evolution:

In the heat of today's crisis and this year's reform, it is easy to lose the perspective that child protection was, in the past, itself an adaptive change. The public value that defines parental abuse and neglect of children as an appropriate concern of government is even more recent. Considering only the last thirty years or so, the evolution of at least four distinct, technical innovations designed to increase child safety is evident.

In the late sixties and early seventies, foster care was touted as the better approach to child protection. Whereas orphanages and children's homes had previously been the better solution, foster care became the new reform. It would provide families for children who could not remain safely with their parents or who may have had no parents. Providing children families was a better technical solution than orphanages.

Note that, despite the change, separating children from their parents continued as the preferred technical approach to keeping children safe. By the mid to late seventies, there were over 500,000 children in foster care in the United States. The better approach was a singular success, but there were unexpected problems.

Although children were shifted into family settings, they did not necessarily have safe, stable families. Children who would not or could not adjust to the expectations of a specific family were summarily moved to another family. The foster care drift phenomenon began. There was a crisis in child protection.

In the eighties, permanence was embraced as the new, better, technical approach to keeping children safe. If clear procedures were implemented to either keep children safely in their parents' homes or alternatively, in adoptive homes, the crisis would be over. The outcome of either alternative would be that children would have permanent, loving families.

Note the shift in public policy over time from valuing orphanages to valuing families, from valuing families to valuing permanent, loving families. The public's polestar value for child protection is child safety. It is now clear that child safety is most highly valued in the context of permanent, loving families, although the public does not clearly articulate this context.

In the late eighties and into the nineties, the new, better technical approach became intensive in-home services. Since merely leaving abused and neglected children with their families was not acceptable and adoption turned out not to be a viable solution for far too many children, intensive in-home services would keep children safe.

At the same time, the presumed causes of child abuse and neglect were reframed. It was no longer correct to see abusive and neglectful parents as bad people who were hurting their innocent children. Rather, they were redefined as good, loving people who, due to stress and other socioeconomic pressures, were in crisis. The maltreatment of their children was an unintentional side effect of that crisis. Providing intensive in-home services would reduce the stress and pressure, while stabilizing the crisis. Again, though, there were problems and child protection itself was once more in a crisis.

Note the dramatic shift here in public policy from reflexively removing abused and neglected children from their parents to keeping children safe in their homes, whenever possible. It was no longer necessary for parents to prove their fitness to keep their children safe. Rather, child protection agencies had to prove that they had made reasonable efforts to help the parents keep their children safe. This is where the responsibility for the safety of children in their homes shifted from being the exclusive responsibility of parents to being a shared responsibility with government.

Since the intensive in-home services movement was primarily a technical solution and there were woefully inadequate organizational capacities and technical expertise to effectively deliver the services, numerous and widespread examples of failure followed. Since the movement likewise required massive adaptive change throughout the Children's Safety Net and since adaptive change was neither understood nor envisioned, there was failure after failure. Children were seriously injured or killed by parents who either did not respond to intensive in-home services or who did not receive any services at all.

Note the accumulating crises in child protection. In the late fifties and early sixties, orphanages and children's homes were the focus of media attention and public outrage. They were characterized as over-crowded, unsafe places for children, and as a disgrace to everyone. They were arguably no better than the abusive and neglectful homes the children came from and perhaps even worse for many children. A crisis in child protection was at hand.

As discussed earlier, foster care was the next, better solution. Again, the media and the public were outraged to learn that children were being abused and neglected in foster care. What's more, foster homes were characterized as unfit environments for children, were frequently over-crowded, and were viewed by the public as merely a financial vehicle for unscrupulous people to use children to make a profit at the taxpayers' expense. There was and continues to be a crisis in foster care and thus a crisis in child protection.

With the advent of reasonable efforts and intensive in-home services came an additional crisis. Children were being left in unsafe homes, were being hurt by their parents, and it was the child protection system's fault. Conversely, family advocates argued that child protection agencies were far too quick to remove children from their parents and were blatantly disregarding parental rights and family values. Big government, in which the public had marginal confidence anyway, was inappropriately intruding into private matters.

In the late nineties, the fourth major shift in child protection practice emerged. The crisis associated with and prompting this shift was very complex. With the presumed crisis in foster care getting worse and the apparent crisis with in-home services intensifying, the public cost of child protection began escalating sharply. Increasing numbers of children were becoming the responsibility of government and the per-child cost was rising rapidly. A system that already had inadequate operating capacity was being further stretched. Although the reasons for these increases are far too complex to discuss in detail here, causes include:

  • Drug abuse

  • Neighborhood and family violence

  • Structural unemployment and poverty

  • The shift from parental responsibility to government responsibility for the safety and well-being of children

  • The growing belief that government should take responsibility for violent, unruly, and delinquent adolescents when their parents decide they have had enough

  • Adults who are ill-equipped and ill-suited to be parents

The fourth practice shift was unlike those that preceded it. They were, for the most part, linear. Practice shifted from quickly removing abused and neglected children from their parents and placing them in children's homes, to placing them in foster homes, to emphasizing permanence and adoption. Practice shifted from quickly removing children from their parents, to requiring reasonable efforts with parents to enable their success.

The fourth shift, in sharp contrast to those that preceded it, is not linear. Instead, it is multidimensional. Technical solutions are being pursued in many areas and at multiple levels simultaneously. Highlighting a few of the technical changes included in the shift is instructive.

Concurrent planning is a technical change that combines two prior technical solutions. (See the second addendum to this chapter.) Emphasis on adoption and permanence is combined with intensive in-home services. When a child is abused or neglected by parents, in-home services for the parents are initiated. Since these services may not be successful, planning for the child's permanence, typically in an adoptive home, is concurrently pursued.

Limits on how long children can remain in foster care were shortened. This expedites permanence and deals indirectly with foster care drift and increasing foster care costs.

Training requirements for protective services workers and foster parents dramatically increased. The expanded training focuses on raising technical expertise, increasing knowledge about specific issues, and the complex difficulties of particular children and families. The belief is that more knowledge and technical expertise will help resolve, if not eliminate, much of the crisis in child protection practice and in foster care.

Managed care became a significant public policy and practice focus. Generally, this technical change moves child protection programs and services from being government-run to being provided by private agencies that contract with the government. This change reflects the public's view that government agencies and personnel are less efficient and less competent than private sector agencies and personnel. The managed care emphasis also intensified the involvement of members of the Children's Safety Net beyond the child protection agency. With that came other emerging technologies such as case management and wrap-around services.

The Family to Family Initiative of The Annie E. Casey Foundation, with its philanthropic support, introduced an innovative variation on child protection reform, emphasizing combining technical solutions with a commitment to adaptive change. (The initiative is discussed in detail in a later chapter.) The Family Centered Neighborhood Based (FCNB) initiative seeks to reform the foster care system. Technical aspects include using data to pinpoint where adaptation must occur and strategic planning processes that engage all key stakeholders who must cooperate if successful adaptation is to occur. Adaptive change focuses on neighborhoods that have been generally ignored and judged as unfit areas for foster home development. The neighborhoods and local residents are included based on their strengths and capacities to improve the safety of children instead of focusing on weakness and limitation. Concurrently, child protection practice is transitioning to a more clearly focused community orientation, emphasizing outcomes for children as opposed to bureaucratic processes and procedures.

Correcting Public Perception:

In the last thirty years, there have been at least four quick fixes intended to increase child safety. Each was viewed as the next, better, technical solution, yet each has been either disparaged for failure or accepted as a necessary evil. The fact is that each of the solutions has its place in protecting children, depending on the unique circumstances of each child and the child's family. There is no silver bullet, no technical fix, no routine or body of accepted interventions that, when applied in well-measured doses, works the first time, every time, for every child or for every family.

The new leadership for child protection must go far beyond efficiently and competently managing programs and services. As important as these functions are, executing them well, although essential, cannot achieve more than incremental increases in efficiency and technical expertise. The level of adaptive change required to transform the Children's Safety Net in each community into a safety net that genuinely protects all of the community's children is a much higher order of practice.

Leadership at this higher level starts with being forthcoming with the public and with all child protection stakeholders. Revisiting the public's priority issues and telling them the unvarnished truth is the starting point for the new leadership, the first step along the path to excellence. The public needs to know and must be repeatedly and consistently told:

  • It is not possible, in a complex and diverse community, to keep every child safe every time.

Some parents will harm their children. Despite the most efficient and competent interventions, some of those parents will harm their children again. Although the Children's Safety Net cannot guarantee that its best efforts will always be successful, it can guarantee that the community's children are safer because it is there and working. Further, it can guarantee that, when there is a mistake or failure, everyone in the Children's Safety Net will work diligently to determine what happened and to reduce the likelihood of its recurrence.

  • Abused and neglected children should remain with their families whenever possible, so long as the children are safe.

The Children's Safety Net members fully agree with the caveat that 'so long as the children are safe' requires discussion. Whether a child is safe and will remain safe is not a yes or no issue. Rather, it is a judgment about likelihood or probability.

When children are left with the people who maltreated them, it can and often does happen again. Leaving the children with them always constitutes a risk. The issue is not as simple as 'safe or not safe.' The issue is the acceptable level of risk.

How much risk is acceptable? That is the judgment that has to be made. Whatever the answer, some children will be re-abused. Professional judgment of reasonable risk is the best the Children's Safety Net has to offer the public. In turn, the authorizing stakeholders will need to decide for themselves if that qualified guarantee is itself reasonable and acceptable. If not, they will need to consider what other options they might have. One such option would be to remove more children, more quickly, not returning them to their parents.

  • Whenever possible and safe, children should be placed with other relatives, when the children cannot remain with their birth families.

Here, the notion of reasonable risk again applies. Grandparents and other relatives may also abuse and neglect children. Whether they will or not, in a specific case, cannot be perfectly predicted.

'Whenever possible and appropriate,' should be included when considering placing children with relatives. The fact of being a grandparent or other relative does not always equate with being a suitable caretaker for a child. Again, professional judgment is involved and is, at times, the primary basis for the decisions that are made.

  • It is heartening that the public is willing to increase taxes to increase the safety of children.

It is quite reasonable for the public to expect the child protection agency to fully account for the money currently available to it and to be explicit and forthcoming about its plans for any additional tax money it may receive. At the same time, the public must realize that, in most communities, it is not adequately or fully supporting the current level of child safety. Were it not for private funding through private agencies and the generosity of people in the community, children would not be as safe as they are. The operating capacity of most public child protection agencies is inadequate and the next avoidable child tragedy is but a breath away.

  • The child protection agency joins the public in expecting all members of the Children's Safety Net to cooperate and collaborate.

The shared commitment must be to the safety of children and to the stability of families. In support of this expectation, the media, legislators, and the general public must, in turn, make it clear to all members of the Children's Safety Net that keeping children safe is everybody's business. Everyone must be held as accountable for good outcomes and safety failures as is the child protection agency.

The child protection agency understands that individual Children's Safety Net member interests and dedicated funding streams mean nothing to the public. The public's expectation is that all programs and services will be coordinated and unduplicated. What's more, they expect all tax-supported activities to reflect their central value: increasing child safety. Beyond that, the stability of families is to also be supported and nurtured, whenever possible and appropriate.

The public also needs to understand that, although the child protection agency shares its goals here, there nonetheless are dedicated funding streams, members of the Children's Safety Net do have other responsibilities and priorities, increasing collaboration and cooperation requires significant adaptive change, and that child safety and family stability are sometimes mutually exclusive outcomes.

Working toward becoming a community that truly protects its children as well as possible is a slow and sometimes tedious process. As stakeholders publicly criticize the lack of progress, the community will be well served if they also publicly value the progress that is being made.

  • Although the public believes that child protection agency social workers are overworked, underpaid, and inadequately supported in their efforts to increase child safety, this is only partially true, and more true in some communities than in others.

Each child protection agency has an obligation to inform the public exactly which parts of this belief are true in their community and which are not. The information must be factually based and supported by valid and generally accepted data. They must also be prepared to be explicit about the difference it would make if their social workers were better paid, had less work to do, and were better supported.

  • It is true that some foster parents are in it exclusively or mostly for the money.

Agencies that provide foster care services are obligated to explain exactly what they are doing to be sure that children are not being used for the financial benefit of strangers. Beyond that, though, the public needs to know how much foster parents are being paid and specifically what they are required to do for foster children in their homes. If the amount being paid reasonably relates to the expectations, the public will not be concerned. The caveat is that foster homes must be good places for children and that foster parents must be people who care for and care about the children placed with them. To prove this to the skeptical public, foster care agencies must use credible data and cite agency practices that assure that it is true for every child placed.

The conclusion here is easy. The traditional approach to child protection, as well as it has worked in the past, will not successfully serve the multiple interests of abused, neglected, and dependent children in the future. More specifically, technical change, as important as it may be, begs the question of how to better develop and implement the complex adaptive change processes required to assure that the Children's Safety Net keeps children safe. Finally, competent administrators, as critical as they are to successfully protecting children, are not enough. The child protection system in general, and child protection agencies in particular, must either import or develop child protection leaders who have the skills and vision to pursue adaptive change in a society that most highly values technical expertise and the quick fix.

Above all, the new leadership for child protection must be mission-focused, externally oriented, and opportunity-seeking. This is not possible unless individual leaders are also passionate and skilled as they clearly communicate the child protection agenda and mission. They must be comfortable and competent within the external environment and reasonably risk-taking as they seek and pursue opportunities to improve and enhance the lives of abused, neglected, and dependent children.

By Dan Schneider, Gary A. Crow, Patti-Jo Burtnett March 23, 2017