Reforming child protection must fundamentally change the paradigm informing the legislative and administrative processes responsible for assuring safety and well being for abused and neglected children. As suggested earlier, those processes have generally followed two tracks. First, they have focused on establishing programs and services for maltreated children and have appropriated resources to support those initiatives. Second, they have focused on correcting perceived deficits and inadequacies in child protection through prescribing additional and generally more restrictive activities and procedures that must be followed by people working in child protection. The procedures create the aggregation of elements and components comprising child protection and then introduce additional rules and restrictions to fix child protection when that which was created does not work. This cycle then continues, iteration after iteration. Although the intentions are good, the results are less than acceptable.
Underlying the above processes, there is a basic shortcoming. The aggregate nature of child protection is both confused and confusing. There is no clear picture of what child protection should look like and how it should function were programs and services adequately and competently serving the needs and interests of maltreated children. Since there is no clear vision of where we are going, there are few if any firm markers or standards for determining whether we are getting there.
The Federal Child and Family Services Review process is an important effort to change the child protection paradigm. It does shift focus from emphasis on rules and procedures to predetermined outcomes for children and families. The specific targets incorporated in these outcomes are a major step in the right direction. The shift from emphasis on rules and procedures to emphasizing outcomes for children and families is positive. It is important to note, as positive as the shift to outcomes is, no jurisdiction has thus far achieved the designated outcomes for its children and families. Further, state and local data systems are typically not designed to measure whether the outcomes are being met. Additionally, there is minimal effort focused on training child protection workers on the outcomes and how to achieve the outcomes for the children and families for whom they are responsible.
The shift toward outcome driven practice in child protection is agonizingly slow and very spotty in terms of its adoption as the central practice paradigm. There is little to no significant discussion about the importance of outcome driven practice and no consensus about what those outcomes should be. Other than the federal emphasis on outcomes as discussed above, it seems unlikely there is any significant discussion or consensus in most child protection jurisdictions. Until we commit to outcome driven practice in all jurisdictions, child protection will continue to be rule and procedure driven and the outcomes we get will remain unacceptably inadequate.
The needed shift to outcome driven practice would be but an interim step in fully reforming child protection. The paradigm shift must be from rules to outcomes to standards driven practice. For example, rule driven practice might say a full investigation must be initiated within 24-hours of receiving a report of a possible child maltreatment situation. Outcome driven practice might say the percent of initiated investigations of reports of possible maltreatment of children within 24-hours of the initial report shall increase from 92% to 95%. Standard driven practice might say no children are further harmed in the interim between the initial report of possible maltreatment and the initiation of the investigation. Rule driven practice might say foster parents shall receive thirty-six hours of training before having any children placed with them. Outcome driven practice might say foster parents shall demonstrate (perhaps through testing) they have specific knowledge and information related to foster care. Standard driven practice might say children in foster care shall experience no harm in the foster home, shall succeed in school, and shall not become involved in problematic behavior or situations in the community. With standard driven practice, the worker and his or her agency are held accountable for meeting the standard for every child, every time.
From the foregoing, it is clear we have hardly begun the complex task of reforming child protection. Not until practice is fully standard driven will maltreated children experience the level of practice they deserve and must have.
Gary A. Crow, Ph.D. GAC@GaryCrow.net || and visit www.GaryCrow.net.