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Rising to the challenge: innovations in child protective services

Protecting children from maltreatment is one of the most challenging responsibilities in social and health services. Most CPS investigations and resulting service delivery are helpful to children and families and occur without incident. However, the public at large is correctly concerned about the welfare of children living in potentially unsafe situations. Public dissatisfaction with services that are intended to assure children’s safety arise from many sources, including, most notably, the idea that it is possible to predict and prevent all child abuse or even all child deaths. Agencies do work to identify probabilities of future harm, but science has not progressed to the point that it is possible predict violence that will result in injury or fatal neglect. Gonzalez and colleagues provide one example of this problem with respect to physical abuse. Given this challenge by the public, agencies are left to struggle with often antiquated systems, minimal levels of staffing, and insufficient supports, in the context of a highly politicized environment. It is no wonder that there are many difficulties in fulfilling the mandate to protect children.

This unhappy state of child protective services need not be inevitable. There are pockets of excellent practice that represent some of the best service delivery possible in this difficult environment. Two counties often recognized for their excellence include Carver and Olmsted Counties in Minnesota. These counties are not without challenges but staff rise to meet them in a planful way, taking control of their own training, practice, and caseload management in their own unique fashion. While both counties employ well-known methods of decision making and practice, such as Structured Decision Making® and Signs of Safety®, they do so quite differently and add other models such as solution focused treatment resulting in their own unique county-specific approaches to practice. A history of their innovation and development over time is described by Wilder Research.

Higher quality child protective services not only protect more children more effectively, they also save money by keeping children from being unnecessarily placed out of their homes. For those children who are able to remain at home or with extended family, the trauma of placement, ensuing difficulties in school, or even with the law, can be avoided. In the U.S., Dr. Becky Antle’s studies on Solution Based Casework practice in child protection suggest good practice will lessen unnecessary placements and at the same time increase protection of those children who are at serious risk of harm.

The question is how to ensure that good practice is widely adopted and maintained over time. In reviewing practice at different high-functioning sites, it appears there are commonalities such as connecting with the family, focusing on the immediate problem, and supporting the workers in ongoing training, but there are many differences in how these practices are organized and supported, due to funding structures and local organization of services. There are many efforts to help support quality, such as the 2011 Child and Family Services Improvements and Innovations Act which made the use of federal funding more flexible, the work of the U. S. Children’s Bureau and research groups such as the National Implementation Research Network, but the many facets of practice, management, and local needs vigorously militate against innovation and change.

Discussions with those initiating the most successful changes yield common themes with respect to maintaining common goals, supporting and respecting workers, and constantly changing to meet new problems and demands. They recognize that the need to innovate is not a one-time occurrence; it is a constant never-ending way of life in complex organizations. In a recent study of innovation in child welfare services conducted by the Centre for the Study of Services to Children and Families in British Columbia and Minnesota, innovation as an enduring commitment, rather than a discrete occurrence, was thematic in conversations with child welfare the most successful leaders.

While a good deal of work has been done to guide agencies in adopting innovative practices, one of the most relevant developments in leading innovation comes out of the business community. Reporting on hundreds of hours of conversation with leaders and workers from diverse companies, Hill et al. cite Coughran of Google, saying “the role of a leader of innovation is not to set a vision and motivate others to follow it. It’s to create a community that is willing and able to generate new ideas.” According to Hill and colleagues, it occurs when teams have shared values, rules of engagement that focus on the quality of discourse, and supporting problem solving through encouraging debate, quickly testing and evaluating new ideas, and entertaining solutions that may combine disparate or seemingly opposed ideas. Establishing esprit de corps, encouraging debate about the optimal ways to achieve desired ends, and supporting some degree of trial and error in program design in governmental agencies is counter-intuitive and can be politically risky. Nevertheless, a firm commitment to supporting the development of such a creative agency appears to be the first step in supporting high quality practice. By establishing common goals for the entire team and agency, investing in workers and staff, supporting them in their work, and treating them as creative colleagues, collective genius, the ability of an organization to rise to challenges through collective effort and creative problem solving may indeed flourish.

Featured image credit: By Maxim Matveev, Public Domain via Pexels

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