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A Call For Guiding Principles

In the previous two sections, I proposed “standards” and “best practice” as key elements in the new child protection paradigm. Traditionally, child protection practice has been rule driven. These rules are both specific and prescriptive. This is what we may think of as an “input” model for practice. Good practice is following the rules.

Rules driven practice has started the transition to outcomes driven practice, an “output” model. Although focus on outcomes is a major step toward practice excellence, the transition will not be complete until there are clear standards in place to judge practice efficacy. Standards driven practice moves beyond rules and outcomes, beyond relative measures of success to absolute standards by which practice is judged.

In the new child protection paradigm, a similar expectation holds for all child protection activities. Traditionally, those activities have been procedure driven. Proscribed procedures are followed in delimited practice areas. For example, complex procedures are followed when conducting an investigation of a report of abuse or neglect or when “studying” a family as a potential foster care resource. Good practice is carefully and completely following the relevant procedures.

There has been some transition to continuous invention in some areas to enable workers to adjust their activities to accommodate and adjust to the individual needs and situations of children and families. Intervention becomes more flexible and less procedural, relying more on the skill and expertise of the worker to do what he (or she) thinks is most appropriate at the time. The “alternative response” (also called “differential response”) model for managing reports of abuse and neglect is a positive example of this transition. As positive as this development is, the transition will not be complete until we have evidence based, best practices for each area of child protection. Relying exclusively on the skill and judgment of individual workers is not adequate. The well being of children requires more and better evidence of what actually is and is not effective for which children in which situations.

There is, I think, a missing step in the current transition of the child protection paradigm. Child protection is clearly re-forming with much more emphasis on outcomes for children and families. There is also more emphasis on continuous invention of new and better approaches to keeping children from harm’s way and enabling families to better manage their responsibilities to their children. Although there is a long way to go to reach the level of standards driven, best practice based child protection, it is beginning to be visible on the child protection horizon. Even so, there is an absence of what we might call “guiding principles” for child protection.

For example, there is currently an initiative being pursued by the National Governors Association to reduce the number of children in foster care – by 50%. This is certainly an outcome driven initiative and represents an important example of continuous invention intended to improve the lives of abused and neglected children. Missing, though, is a clear statement of the guiding principles followed when forming the initiative. Why is reducing the number of children in foster care a good idea and how do we know there are twice as many children in foster care as should be there? I am not questioning the initiative but rather simply asking what guiding principles inform the decision to pursue the initiative. More generally, then, what guiding principles inform or should inform child protection practice?

An example of a guiding principle might be any intervention on behalf of a child will increase safety, permanence, and ongoing well being for the child. This is based on the standard that says children will only live in safe, stable environments that are familiar and nurturing and that meet their needs and support their ongoing well being. A second guiding principle here is timely permanence is always of the essence when intervening on behalf of children.

These may not be the correct guiding principles but if they are, foster care clearly violates both principles. Foster care is typically neither familiar nor permanent. Following the principles, no children should be in foster care and those who are should have that situation corrected immediately, if at all possible. Foster care placements should be reduced by 100%. A 50% reduction is, then, but a good start in the right direction. Our guiding principles tell us so. If child protection is to be re-formed, what are the guiding principles that should inform the reformation? All child protection practice should be standards driven and best practice based is a good candidate for inclusion in any list of the top ten guiding principles informing child protection reform.

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Please send comments or questions to Gary A. Crow, Ph.D. || and visit