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Toward A Unified Commitment

Within the closed structure and associated sub-structures containing child protection I discussed earlier, joint action involving multiple sub-structures or compartments is both tedious and difficult. The challenge is striking at the lowest or most localized level and increases as one moves “up” to district, regional, state, and interstate levels. At a local level, the challenge is seen with departments or areas such as investigations, ongoing services, foster care, independent living, and so on. Each entity functions fairly autonomously and more or less independently. There are clear boundaries separating the functions and cooperative action requires a conscious effort to span those boundaries. The separation and boundaries are more pronounced and less permeable as one moves up to “higher” levels.

When spanning boundaries for cooperative action, each compartment or entity limits its actions to its usual function or activities. It does what it usually does. Spanning occurs for the sake of some shared client or interest. This traditional type of cooperation is usually referred to as “collaboration” and only serves to coordinate the activities of the collaborating entities. Within local agencies, this type of collaboration is typically governed by internal procedures. At higher levels or when the cooperation is between separate agencies, the collaboration is typically governed by contracts, memoranda of understanding, or informal, ad hoc arrangements. Additionally, collaboration is usually limited to a particular case, situation, or circumstance and is most often time limited. It serves a specific purpose and then stops. (Let me note in passing collaboration is usually between entities or individual workers at the same level but sometimes happens vertically, e.g., between state and county entities or between federal and state entities.)

In contemporary child protection practice, collaboration is the primary vehicle for cooperative action at every level. In vertical relationships, legal force, rules, and general coercion frequently “force” cooperation; but voluntary cooperation and collaboration are most common at all levels and particularly with same-level relationships. Due to the essentially voluntary and situational nature of collaboration, it tends to be dependent on the particular people who need to collaborate, on unrelated factors such as other demands on time and services, and on the level of specific interest of the collaborators or Management within their respective entities. Although collaboration usually works to a limited extent, it often fails, breaks down, or is not responsive to the unique circumstances or interests of a client or situation.

Collaborative arrangements as discussed above are often referred to as “partnerships” but are not. The identities and autonomy of the entities remain, as do the clearly defined boundaries between them. They continue to function as separate entities with separately defined functions. A partnership pools or combines specified resources from the partnering entities to form a new entity with its separate identity and function. It is a derivative entity clearly differentiated from the original partnering entities. The Integrated Services Partnership (ISP) discussed above is an example of a partnership as apposed to a collaborative arrangement.

The distinct advantage of a partnership vs. other collaborative arrangements starts with the partnership’s mission or purpose. Although the mission likely needs to be compatible with the purposes of the partnering entities, it can be shaped and tweaked to focus on a mutually agreed to problem or issue. The purpose of the partnership is compatible with but not the same as the purpose of any of the partners. Given its related but separate purpose, the partnership can focus on the problem or issue with minimal consideration given to the interests of the individual partner entities. Within the partnership, personnel assignments, services, and resource allocation can be managed to optimize action targeted specifically to achieving the partnership’s mission.

The evolution of the child protection paradigm is from traditional collaboration to the development of partnerships focusing on safety, permanence, and ongoing success for all of the community’s children. If the paradigm is to continue its evolution toward excellence, the perspective shifts away from the partnering entities to children and families and in turn to the community and to integrated service models discussed above. Focus also shifts from abused and neglected children to maltreated children more generally to children in need of services whether maltreated or not. Within the community’s children’s safety net, there is a unified commitment of all participants to the well being and ongoing success of each of the community’s children. The child’s parents have the first level of responsibility for assuring their child’s success and all agencies and services in the community are ready and committed to whatever is needed to support and backup the parents, with a unified commitment to each child’s physical, emotional, moral, social, and intellectual success, through whatever means or arrangements necessary to meet this commitment.

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Please send comments or questions to Gary A. Crow, Ph.D. GAC@GaryCrow.net || and visit www.GaryCrow.net.