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
not possible, in a complex and diverse community, to keep every child safe
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 communitys 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.
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.
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
heartening that the public is willing to increase taxes to increase the safety
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.
child protection agency joins the public in expecting all members of the
Children’s Safety Net to cooperate and collaborate.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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