The Child Protection Linchpin:
The child protection system is multi-layered, multi-dimensional, and dynamic. Moreover, there are extraordinarily complex technical and adaptive issues throughout the system. In this context, technical issues are those that require well-considered rules, carefully developed instructions, and thoughtfully standardized procedures. They relate to the question, “How can this be done better?” Adaptive issues relate to why it should be done. The knowledge, skills, values, attitudes, and capacity of individuals and organizations are the foundation for addressing adaptive issues. The adaptive challenge is to continuously improve the successful fit between the child protection system and the specific needs, problems, and vulnerabilities of abused, neglected, and dependent children.
Legislators and rule-makers can certainly support and facilitate child protection. They can assure adequate financial resources, provide legislative and administrative guidance, require specific actions, and mandate defined activities. They can and do impose technical solutions to anticipated issues and problems. Alternatively, they are significantly less able to impose effective solutions to adaptive issues and problems. There, creativity, continuous improvement, flexibility, informed judgment, and positive change are essential at the individual and agency levels. In practice, the part of the child protection system that exists “above” the agency sincerely wants adaptive solutions and adaptive change but pursues this desire through technical solutions and approaches. Along with laws and rules, they offer technical assistance to the agency in an effort to change and enhance the system. The agency workers become more technically competent but the adaptive issues requiring adaptive change remain unresolved.
Children, parents, relatives, foster and adoptive parents, staff members of specialized facilities, and other members of the Children’s Safety Net also provide technical assistance and suggestions to agency workers. The effort is to improve child protection and to encourage adaptive change. For the most part, though, these efforts are not particularly effectual. The adaptive changes in knowledge, skills, values, attitudes, and capacity to continuously improve are not evident. Everyone wants positive change but change is, at best, slow and at worst, nonexistent.
Despite the good intentions and best efforts of other individuals and entities in the system, technical problems will not be resolved and adaptive problems will not be reduced without the full cooperation of the child protection agency. There must be a proactive commitment to continuous improvement and excellence in all aspects of the agency and its operation. Further, that adaptive change must extend beyond the agency itself and embrace all participants in the Children’s Safety Net.
When the question is, “Who is responsible for abused and neglected children and who is at fault when they are abused and neglected?” the answer is “Their parents.” A child’s parents are the primary safety net. When the question is, “Who is in the best position to minimize the abuse and neglect of children and to keep children from harm’s way when parents fail?” the answer is, “The Children’s Safety Net.” The agency is only part of the solution, albeit arguably the most important part. Legislators and rule-makers, police and other members of the Children’s Safety Net, relatives, foster parents and staff of specialized facilities, and the public can and do fill invaluable roles in the system; but the agency is the system linchpin. If the agency does the right things right, the first time, on time, every time, one child at a time, the abuse and neglect of children will not completely go away, critical incidents will still happen. Nonetheless, the community’s children will be much safer. Their chances for permanence will be much higher. Their hope for age-appropriate self-sufficiency will be much more likely to be realized. If the agency does not achieve and sustain technical and adaptive excellence in all it does, abused, neglected, and dependent children will continue to suffer in proportion to the agency’s contentment with business as usual.