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.