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Toward Reliance On Professional Judgment

I have been focusing on the new and evolving child protection paradigm. If the new paradigm is to serve the best interests of abused and neglected children, it must be standards driven and best practice based, reflecting carefully conceived and well considered guiding principles that appropriately inform child protection practice. The evolving paradigm is transitioning from reliance on rules and procedures to emphasis on outcomes and continuous invention of innovative and creative strategies for and approaches to our work with children and families.

The need is to continue that transition to incorporate consensus based standards and verified best practices directing all child protection interventions. The paradigm additionally needs to transition from reliance on bureaucratic structures to worker empowerment and in turn to dependence on professional judgment and expertise. Let’s consider each of these three transitional elements.

Bureaucratic structures: I am sure we are all familiar with the traditional bureaucracy model for organizations and for organizing programs and services. The typical structure is vertically organized, with power, authority, direction, and planning emanating from the top of the familiar pyramid and spreading outward and down. The requirements and directives are passed down in the form of procedures and rules to be faithfully followed at each descending level. As the laws, policies, and directives descend, additional, specific procedures and rules are added in order to more exactly prescribe the actions and behavior expected of people at each lower level. Their individual performance is then evaluated in terms of how completely they know and follow the array of procedures and rules associated with their positions in the bureaucracy. At the level of service to people, the structure is procedure and rules driven.

An underlying problem here is child protection is not a bureaucracy in any traditional sense. One has to focus fairly locally to find any single structure that functions in a traditional bureaucratic manner. What we find instead is a loosely organized aggregation of public and private entities, programs, and services functioning collectively and more or less coherently to protect abused and neglected children. The existing procedures and rules are understood and followed unevenly and inconsistently, The people delivering the prescribed services reflect wide variability in terms of qualifications and approach, and the actions and behavior expected when the laws and policies at the top of the presumed bureaucratic structure began their descent toward implementation have only a general relationship to what actually happens in the field.

Empowerment: It likely comes as no surprise to those in the field who are doing the difficult work of child protection to have me point out empowerment is not a new idea. Child protection workers have been largely empowered to do as they think best for many years. Certainly they mostly conform their actions and behavior to the myriad of procedures and rules associated with their positions. They are good bureaucratic participants. At the same time, though, the strategies, approaches, choices, and decisions they make for and about children and families on a daily basis are mostly a function of their own counsel. This includes how they choose to apply specific procedures and rules within specific situations and circumstances.

The shift to an outcomes orientation for judging the effectiveness of their actions and behavior is, in part, an acknowledgement of existing worker empowerment. Reliance on compliance with procedures and rules has clearly not been adequate. Workers have also used continuous invention for a very long time. Although they may usually do what they do in the same ways they have in the past, new situations and unexpected challenges require creativity and innovation. Workers invent new and better ways to accomplish what they are committed to accomplishing with children and families. They proceed on an empowered basis simply because they do not have a prescribed path that will get their clients where they need to go. Within the bureaucratic mind-set, we proceed as if this were not the case but it is.

Professional judgment: Within the new child protection paradigm, reliance on outcomes shifts to acceptance of consensus based standards whereby practice is judged to succeed or fail. In this paradigm, simply doing better is not acceptable. Child protection workers are expected to succeed. Similarly, inventing strategies and approaches by individual workers is not adequate practice. Making it up as we go along is unacceptable. Although in the current practice environment, continuous invention is necessary, in the new child protection paradigm, workers will be able to rely on best practice methods and approaches known to conform to accepted standards.

The professional judgments of child protection workers will be fully informed by child protection’s underlying guiding principles and reliant on generally accepted standards and known best practice. At that practice level, bureaucratically generated laws and policies, procedures and rules will be largely unnecessary and mostly counterproductive. Child protection will then be the responsibility of extensively educated, highly trained professionals who practice based on clear guiding principles informing consensus based standards and known best practice. The people assuring safety, permanence, and ongoing well being for abused and neglected children will be as qualified as those who safeguard our health or fly the plains that transport us around the world. The knowledge, judgment, and expertise required are no less for those who we hold responsible for our children.

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