Bullying and Intimidation in Child Welfare Management

 (Originally published July 2018)

In January 2018, Oregon's Audits Division issued a blistering indictment of the mismanagement of the state's child welfare system over many years and under several directors. The report, Foster Care in Oregon: chronic management failures and high caseloads jeopardize the agency of some of the state's most vulnerable children, cites multiple overlapping reform initiatives, inadequate implementation of these initiatives (some of which were virtually abandoned before they were fully implemented), excessive workloads that far exceed reasonable standards, acute and chronic foster care recruitment problems, inadequate compensation of foster parents, high rates of caseworker turnover, dependence on a safety framework which many staff dislike and some refuse to use, and an inadequate computer system that makes caseworkers' jobs more onerous rather than easier.


Possibly the most distressing part of the report concerns the managerial culture of the child welfare agency, i.e., “an atmosphere of blame and distrust.” The auditors comment that “on multiple occasions, staff told us they felt unsafe or uncomfortable with raising concerns to management about critical child welfare issues.” Furthermore, “staff at all levels … reported incidents of bullying and intimidation of caseworkers by senior staff, and management efforts to suppress information.” (p. 49) Bullying included “being shouted at and verbally abused” and “threats to take away scheduled leave time from field staff unless monthly case goals are met.”

One manager told the auditors that she/he was “threatened with loss of (their) job if she/he testified before the legislature regarding a failing program.” Another manager “told us that they and their team were treated as “saboteurs” for sharing information regarding a child safety review with management.” One staff member told auditors that “from the top down … an unhealthy and even toxic workplace where disrespect, favoritism, harassment, intimidation and retaliation are allowed has been and continues to be nurtured.”


The Audits Division report found a managerial “lack of empathy about excessive workload” despite its recommendation that the child welfare agency needed more than 700 additional casework positions to bring caseloads to reasonable standards. Subsequent to the dissemination of this report, the Oregon legislature funded an additional 200 positions. However, according to recent news stories, Oregon's child welfare system has had difficulty filling these positions. Word gets around; negative word of mouth from experienced caseworkers is likely to have the same effect on caseworker recruitment that negative word of mouth from experienced foster parents to family, friends, church members, etc.,  has on foster care recruitment. Why seek employment with an agency whose managers overwhelm caseworkers with unreasonable workload demands, express zero empathy with the effects of excessive workloads on caseworkers' morale and well being, and then engage in threats and bullying when caseworkers are unable to complete assigned work?


The Uses of Bullying


There is a widespread cultural belief that the bullying of children and adolescents creates bullies, a highly questionable generalization to say the least. Nevertheless, identification with the aggressor is a powerful social dynamic when no one in authority intervenes to stop bullying, and when bullying elicits the approval of peers and colleagues. On the other hand, social disapproval is a powerful disincentive for bullying even when managers fail to intervene on behalf of a victim. Bullying may also serve organizational goals; in organizations where managerial bullying is widespread, bullying may be used for the following purposes:


  • A well regarded leader sometimes uses an enforcer to carry out unpleasant personnel tasks such as disciplining or demoting members of the leadership team, or applying pressure on regional administrators to improve a region's performance.  The enforcer is given wide latitude to do as she/he sees fit, so everyone in the management team is aware of the uselessness of appealing to the popular leader for protection.  Anyone who has attended junior high schools with a good principal and bad (i.e., nasty,  mean, terrifying) vice principal is familiar with this dynamic duo, which has been used in many organizations, large and small. I have worked on management teams in which the enforcer was so feared that other top managers would not say a word of criticism regarding this person to their closest friend, in private, due to fear that their comments would somehow reach the enforcer and make her/him a target of the person's wrath.

  • Bullying is sometimes part of a larger campaign of harassment, the purpose of which is to induce an employee with many years of good to excellent performance evaluations to resign without going through a lengthy and possibly unsuccessful personnel process. In these instances, bullying may include ganging up on a scapegoated employee in meetings, shunning and ostracism of the employee from social activities, undercutting a caseworker in staffings, and a variety of other actions designed to embarrass and demean the person. Supervisors and managers can only engage in calculated harassment campaigns when they have the support of the manager above them in the chain of command.  Area administrators and regional administrators may be unaware of incidents of bullying or harassment, but they cannot be unaware of harassment campaigns that result in grievances and/or lawsuits.

  • An employee who has been terminated may be “walked out” of the office as a warning to subordinates of what could happen to them if they engage in the same behavior that led to the termination or for other reasons. Walking an employee out of the office is an act of public shaming rarely necessary in termination actions that have been in process for weeks or months.


A culture of fear


Managerial bullying grows out of a culture of fear. It is possible for managers of organizations to be highly punitive without engaging in bullying, which includes an intent to publicly embarrass and humiliate as well as to punish.  Nevertheless, it is not surprising to find instances of bullying in fear based management systems. In June 2018, The Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group issued their report on Indiana's child welfare system titled Evaluation of the Indiana Department of Child Services. In a report more measured in tone than the Oregon Audits Division report but containing many of the same themes, the authors describe “a culture of fear that exists among front line staff. This is, unfortunately, not an unusual finding in child welfare agencies today,” a conclusion that should be taken seriously given the authors' intimate knowledge of child welfare agencies around the country. “Fear was a word used over and over again,” in interviews with public agency staff, and from “representatives of provider agencies and public partner agencies,” the authors state in their report.


The Indiana report found that “Most (staff) felt unable to take any risks around the flexibility of policy … even if it might lead to better outcomes” (p.29) and “Some said they did not feel safe to “tell the truth.” The truth that Indiana staff felt afraid to tell included admission of “any lack in knowledge, skills, or performance because such disclosures are not viewed as opportunities for learning, but rather for punishment.” Indiana caseworkers reported being “written up” for admissions of inadequate knowledge or performance (p. 30). Indiana caseworkers felt “unable to make decisions or offers of services without fear of reprisal” despite the lack of any agency policy precluding the offer of services to families on open cases.  It appears that the Indiana's child welfare system's response to high profile child maltreatment deaths has been to eliminate initiative among caseworkers and supervisors by insisting on strict compliance with policy requirements without regard (as in Oregon) to workload pressures.  In addition, Indiana's child welfare system has used “red dashboards” of performance indicators and email reminders of overdue deadlines, process measures that “manage for activity, not accomplishments.” In just about every state and large county U.S. child welfare system, middle managers are being evaluated according to how their offices perform on questionable metrics (or phony metrics) more focused on completed activities than with the quality of services. Managers, in turn, are communicating this focus to practitioners.  “It's all about numbers,” is how child welfare staff in Washington often describe their managers' concern with offices' ratings on performance indicators.    


Afraid to tell the truth


In September 2017, Marqueta Walters, the recently appointed director of Louisiana's child welfare system, stated to a Baton Rouge TV reporter that under her recent predecessors, “Our staff were treated horribly, people were afraid to speak up, to tell the truth, to talk back.” She added, “I'm shocked at the hurt and PTSD I walked into…”  What truths were Louisiana child welfare staff afraid to tell their managers? One of those truths is suggested by a 2016 story from Louisiana about a child welfare caseworker charged with 21 counts of fraud for documenting visits with foster children that never occurred. The caseworker stated that “staff members are pressured to complete tasks in inappropriate short time frames and are dinged on performance evaluations if they are late.” She added that she was under pressure “get things done no matter what.”


This is a recurring theme in multiple reports on state child welfare systems, i.e., overwhelming workloads lead to an inability to comply with various policies such as the requirement for 24 hour response or to close out investigations in 90 days, or to make collateral calls and conduct comprehensive evaluations on every case. Some caseworkers speak up at the risk of making managers angry when they're unable to complete assigned work according to policy directives. Others “game” performance indicators in various ways, or only comply with policies that receive consistent managerial attention. A few caseworkers engage in fraudulent documentation.  As internal tensions over workload issues increase, fear based management approaches become more common.


There are other truths child welfare staff may be reluctant to tell managers:


  • The safety framework required by policy is difficult to learn and impossible to implement with fidelity in these circumstances (Oregon).

  • The computer system demands more time and attention than direct contact with children and families. (Oregon)

  • Strict compliance with agency policies is leading to bad outcomes (Indiana).

  • The metrics by which performance is evaluated (i.e., performance indicators) are phony and are actually distorting casework practice. (Louisiana)

  • Foster care for behaviorally troubled children is frequently doing more harm than good (just about everywhere in the U.S.)


Permission to tell the truth is the foundation of trustworthy leadership in any organization (see Jonathan Shay's discussion of military leadership in Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming, 2002).  It is impossible to trust managers who refuse to listen to caseworkers and supervisors regarding conditions on the ground or are unwilling to hear bad news. The permission to tell the truth and willingness to listen to the truth as perceived by employees closest to the work with children and families is so important, it's practically a litmus test for child welfare managers. The following question can be asked of building managers, regional administrators and Headquarters managers:


How often in the past year has the manager met with and patiently listened to caseworkers and supervisors regarding what they need
to do their work?


If the answer is rarely or never, the manager is in the wrong profession, even if she/he is a child welfare director (or especially if the manager is a child welfare director).




Many, perhaps most, U.S. child welfare systems are engaging in fear based management to the extent that reports and stories regarding managers' use of threats, retaliation for speaking up and telling the truth, and even incidents of supervisory or managerial bullying are becoming common in some states. In my lengthy child welfare career, I encountered only a few managerial bullies (e.g., enforcers in a few leadership teams and a handful of top DSHS managers), but the large percentage of managers I worked with were ethical in their treatment of employees and scrupulous regarding adherence to personnel rules. My assumption is that this continues to be true in Washington State and most other states. Nevertheless, during recent years I have heard several disturbing stories of bullying of caseworkers or supervisors in this state; actions that appear to have been endorsed by their superiors. It's possible that these stories are exaggerated, but they're not “fake news”.


From a broader perspective, stories of bullying and intimidation in child welfare management indicate deeper problems than the character flaws of a few child welfare managers.  Most public agency managers are applying a set of questionable management principles without reflection or discussion:


  • More policy is better than less policy

  • Managerial expectations regarding casework practice should not reflect workload pressures or resource constraints

  • Caseworkers and supervisors are tools to deliver standardized practice frameworks

  • Unauthorized initiative by practitioners is inherently suspect

  • Consistency of practice is more important than local flexibility

  • The quality of services can be adequately measured using administrative data

  • Critical feedback of staff at all levels impedes implementation of agency initiatives and undermines political support


Every one of these ideas is mistaken. Used in combination as a management philosophy, they have had disastrous effects on child welfare systems.  One of those effects has been an increase in fear based management practices required to suppress common sense and stifle dissent, both internally and among stakeholders and advocates.


In next month's Sounding Board, I will discuss the idea of servant leadership in human services organizations.




  • “DCFS struggling with poor morale and high employee turnover rate,” Channel WAFB 9, September 18, 2017.

  • Evaluation of the Indiana Department of Child Services, Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, June 18, 2018.

  • Foster care in Oregon: chronic management failures and high caseloads jeopardize the safety of some of the state's most vulnerable children,” Oregon Audits Division, January 2018.

  • “Louisiana's child protection system understaffed after years of cuts,” Baton Rouge Advocate. February 28, 2016.

  • Shay, Jonathan, Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming, Scribner, 2002.


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