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 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.
· 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.