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Open Structures And Emerging Models Of Excellence

I have discussed the fundamentally closed nature of child protection’s general structure and associated sub-structures. These structures are consistent with nearly exclusive reliance on prescriptive rules and procedures and on the bureaucracy used to organize and operate child protection. These aspects were discussed earlier. There, we saw how reliance on these traditional administrative constructs reinforces staff centered, program centered, agency focused practice. This traditional, closed paradigm effectively includes most (but not all) severely maltreated children and successfully keeps them from harm’s way. However, it does not include most maltreated children; and for the children it does include, permanence and ongoing success are secondary considerations, if they are considered at all. The unconscionable number of children lingering in foster care is but one example of the paradigm’s inadequacy.

I have also discussed the importance of incorporating permanence and ongoing success with safety as co-equal pillars of child protection practice. Merely keeping most severely maltreated children from harm’s way is insufficient. All children, maltreated or not, deserve and must have permanent homes with nurturing and supportive families where their ongoing success is, to the extent possible, guaranteed. This cannot be achieved through continuing reliance on the traditional child protection paradigm, with its closed structures and sub-structures. A transition to an open structure paradigm is much overdue.

An important shift toward open structures begins with simply abandoning reliance on legislatively and administratively determined, prescriptive rules and procedures directing the behavior and actions of child protection workers. The traditional “We know better than you how to help the children and families with whom you work,” mentality should be replaced with an “Any reasonable approach” mandate. Here, a “reasonable approach” is consistent with generally accepted practice standards, known best practice, and sound professional judgment in alignment with the judgments of most other professionals with similar training and experience and in accord with well understood and accepted guiding principles underpinning practice.

Within these constraints, practice relies on clearly articulated outcomes and continuous invention of strategies individualized for specific children and families. Worker, program, and agency centeredness are replaced by child and family centeredness. The locus of services shifts to the community, as discussed earlier. Within this community focus, child protection relies on an integrated model of service delivery where virtual agencies are tailored to the individual needs and interests of specific children and families.

An example of a virtual agency approaching the integrated model suggested above has been functioning in Lorain County, Ohio for several years. The Juvenile Court along with the public child protection agency and the public mental health, substance abuse, and mental retardation and developmental disabilities agencies formed the Integrated Services Partnership (ISP). These public entities funded a services pool to pay for services for children experiencing more serious behavior and adjustment difficulties. The community, under the direction of the ISP governing group, formed the Children’s Continuum of Care Committee (4C).

The 4C Committee functions as a clinical panel with full authority to work with the child and his (or her) family and to authorize any services or resources believed to be in the best interest of the child and his safety, permanence, and ongoing success. The panel includes representatives from the partner entities along with representatives from the schools and other community services entities. The services arrays are developed one child at a time and based exclusively on the judgments and experience of panel members and the special insights of the child and his family. The result is a virtual agency created to accommodate to the unique needs and interests of each child included in the ISP’s operation.

The ISP has an additional feature of interest here. Although the partnership excludes most children in the County who need support and services since it only services more seriously maladjusted children who are also associated with one of the partner entities, the issue of whether the child is maltreated goes away. Some children served through the ISP have been maltreated and others have not. They are simply children in need of services, with full focus limited to developing the best services array for each child.

The ISP is an example of an integrated model with promise for all maltreated children in particular and all children in need of services more generally. For child protection, realizing the new vision starts with acknowledging the fundamental inadequacy of the traditional paradigm within which child protection is currently mired. The paradigm must shift to a child and family centered, community focused paradigm, relying on standards, best practice, professional judgment, and underpinned by generally accepted guiding principles for work with children and families. From there, we can pursue the serious business of creating strategies for realizing virtual agencies for every child needing services, based on open structures and emerging, integrated models of excellence.

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