Servant Leadership in Child Welfare

(Originally published August 2018)

A highly esteemed child welfare leader once said words to the effect (not a direct quote) that “every child welfare director, regardless of experience or achievements, is just one child death away from dismissal.”


State and large county child welfare directors feel politically vulnerable, with good reason. In many state and large child welfare systems, there has been rapid turnover of child welfare directors, changes in leadership often following high profile child deaths and for various other reasons. In recent years, child welfare directors in one or more states have been fired or forced out due to:

  • exposure of abuse and neglect of foster children and youth resulting in large tort settlements (Oregon). 

  • allegations of corrupt business practices (Illinois),

  • class action lawsuits embarrassing to policymakers (Oklahoma and Texas) 

  • widespread dissatisfaction among policymakers,  advocates and stakeholders with the child welfare system's organizational culture (Washington).


Furthermore, within a few weeks or months new child welfare directors will learn that (a) child maltreatment deaths can happen at any time, (b) every medium to large child welfare system has a predictable number of such deaths on open or recently open cases each year; (c) there is an arbitrary, unpredictable response to media coverage of child maltreatment deaths, and (d) child welfare agencies have engaged in multiple reform initiatives which include the same elements (training programs, acquisition of new assessment tools or practice models, modest staff increases) without much, if any, effect on child maltreatment deaths or near-deaths for decades.  New child welfare leaders who may lack any child welfare experience will quickly learn that governors and legislators have great expectations which are next to impossible to satisfy with current resources and staffing levels or with no more than modest budget enhancements.


In these circumstances, new child welfare leadership teams are likely to be initially concerned with separating themselves from their predecessors and putting their stamp on the child welfare agency with one or more top-down initiatives that mark their territory, so to speak. They will also be concerned with sustaining a “honeymoon” period during which they are protected from blame for child deaths, practice deficiencies of various kinds, and from the anger of stakeholders and foster parents who anticipate a new era in child welfare, a period when they are well supported, listened to and treated as partners.  Newly appointed child welfare directors almost certainly understand that their political honeymoon is time limited and that they must do something substantial to sustain political influence and support once events take a turn for the worse, as they inevitably will. These are not conditions that engender a managerial concern for the long run, or for reform initiatives that may require 5-10 years to bear fruit.  Child welfare leaders, aware of their political vulnerability, are likely to concentrate on how to best use their  political honeymoon,  “brand” their approach to child welfare reform and on their initial

budget request, the 'ask' which will represent to advocates and stakeholders their vision of how to dramatically improve child welfare.


Servant leaders develop leadership across the agency


Within a month or two of taking over leadership of a child welfare system, a leadership team has already made personnel appointments likely to have far reaching effects for a decade or two, effects that may outweigh the effects of programmatic initiatives. Child welfare managers at all but the top level have civil service protections; a large percentage of these managers will likely continue to be employed by the child welfare agency long after a child welfare director has retired, been fired or resigned, or (rarely) moved on to greener pastures.  Managers reveal their values and abilities (and their deficiencies) gradually.  In most instances, a few years are required to fairly evaluate the quality of a leadership team's managerial appointments. Nevertheless, managers at all levels appoint other managers and supervisors. In the interpersonal realm “like finds like” so that the effects of any single managerial appointment are compounded, for good or for ill.  Many years are required to recover from poor leadership at the top of an agency, and the effects of good managerial appointments reverberate long after those who made the appointments have been forgotten.


For this reason, servant leaders concerned with the long term effects of their decisions will invest in leadership development and in succession planning. In Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and The Trials of Homecoming (2002), Jonathan Shay discusses the habits and principles of trustworthy leaders in any organization whose work is physically, psychologically and morally dangerous:


  • Make it safe to tell the truth

  • Support subordinate leaders' professional growth

  • Trust subordinate leaders and work hard to assure their success

  • Assign missions without prescribing the means to accomplish them

  • Build their competence to assess situations and take initiative to find solutions

  • Mentor, rather than intimidate, subordinate leaders

  • Refrain from meddling in their spheres of responsibility

  • Require subordinate leaders to study their profession

  • Take responsibility for setting mission and priorities, not assigning every mission as

            “highest priority, to be done immediately”

  • Listen to subordinate leaders' feedback on budget and resources, supporting realistic time management

  • Support self-maintenance rather than defeating it


This is the leadership culture that will bear fruit for many years in child welfare systems, long after the departure of a specific child welfare director.  It is a leadership culture of critical obedience, not blind obedience, and it is a culture in which developing high quality leadership across the organization is a priority as important as programmatic initiatives which “brand” leadership teams.


Creating a culture of truthfulness


A culture that encourages truth telling up and down the chain of command is important in every organization, but it is a necessity in understaffed child welfare agencies whose policy manuals require “best practices” regardless of staffing levels. When supervisors cannot speak openly and honestly to middle managers and regional managers regarding workload pressures and limits, caseworkers and supervisors will find shortcuts to policy requirements and ways of “gaming” performance indicators. Jonathan Shay asserts that “Leadership truthfulness at all levels means eliminating perverse incentives to look good at the expense of being good.” In organizational cultures which discourage truthfulness, preferring instead to manage through a virtual world of documentation and performance indicators, child welfare managers can be misinformed, even clueless, regarding the quality of practice in their offices. It is common to read child welfare stories from around the country in which caseworkers state that their caseloads are 2-3 times larger than a reasonable workload standard, while managers insist that agency statistics reflect caseloads which are within acceptable limits!  Some state and county child welfare systems seem to operate according to the guideline: “You (caseworkers and supervisors) create the appearance of good practice, and we (managers) will pretend to believe you.”


Any new child welfare leadership team that seeks to create a culture of truthfulness should begin with a critical examination of performance indicators by agency staff and through consultation with advocates and scholars. This is not a big ticket item, but any extensive consultation process takes time and effort which will be useful only if top managers are invested in the exercise.  As matters currently stand, both child safety measures and permanency measures commonly used by child welfare systems are misleading (e.g., child safety measures) or incomplete (permanency indicators). Until these measures are revised, there cannot be a credible answer to the question, “is the state (or county) child welfare system improving its performance, staying the same or becoming worse?” It will be impossible to make steady progress in child welfare until policymakers and child welfare directors insist on truthful credible answers to this question, rather than depending on periodic federal CFSR evaluations of state child welfare performance that have arguably done more harm than good. 


Creating a culture of truthfulness applies to the political arena and to communication with advocates and stakeholders regarding child welfare issues as well. In December 2017, Mary Beth Bonaventura, then Director of Indiana's child welfare system, resigned after the state's governor announced budget cuts that Bonaventura asserted would “all but ensure that children will die.”  Bonaventura's resignation was highly unusual. It is common for policymakers to undermine a child welfare system through devastating budget cuts with nary a word of protest from the state or county child welfare director, and sometimes with barely a murmur from child advocates more concerned with alienating public officials than with registering a protest to destructive public policy.


 In Washington State, a political culture has developed during the past 15 years in which it is considered bad manners, or worse, bad character to criticize public officials or stir up controversy regarding any aspect of the state's child welfare system.  Public criticism of elected officials for policies and budgets which have done severe damage to the state's child welfare system invites social exclusion and retaliation of various sorts.  As a result, public discussion and debate of child welfare issues and possible solutions is muffled in this state, if indeed it occurs at all. Child welfare staff, advocates and stakeholders are careful not to speak out of turn, or in ways that could lead to the disapproval and retaliatory action of policymakers and child welfare managers.


 A child welfare leader and her/his leadership team can change this culture of avoidance and misplaced deference quickly and dramatically by telling the truth in a way that attracts public attention:


  • The state's foster care system is in dire straits with no end in sight so long as current policies and business models continue.


  • Salaries of child welfare staff need to be increased at least 20% even after the increase during the past legislative session (after controlling for inflation) to recruit and retain a skilled and experienced workforce.


  • The state's child welfare system is underfunded by a very large amount, at least $100 million dollars annually, and probably much more. Inadequate staffing of the child welfare system and the resulting workload problems have compromised every aspect of

       child welfare practice and will continue to do so under any administrative structure and leadership team.


Of course, top managers of the new child welfare department may view the needs of the child welfare system quite differently. Whatever their views, child welfare leaders must speak up regarding the condition and needs of children and families served by the state's child welfare system to change a political culture that has suppressed public discussion of controversial child welfare issues for many years.  They should welcome public debate rather than discouraging it. Depending on behind the scenes deliberations of policymakers and insiders to shape child welfare policy has not created the urgency needed to confront the realities of a foster care crisis and an inadequately paid, overwhelmed workforce. Rather, these issues have been put on hold to create a new administrative structure for the state's child welfare system.  It is time to stimulate open discussion of possible solutions to conditions that cannot be allowed to persist.



Child welfare managers have a responsibility to communities


One pitfall of a state administered public agency is that area administrators and regional managers will be so attuned to the top leaders of the organization that they will ignore or give low priority to social problems that require community collaboration and concern with local needs. The opioid epidemic, child homelessness and sex trafficking require highly organized community responses, as well as enlightened state and federal policies. Child welfare managers may not participate in local initiatives that target these concerns unless child welfare leaders acknowledge a responsibility to local communities.


Part of the job description of child welfare mangers should be to mobilize community groups, including churches, on behalf of the most vulnerable children and families. Concretely, this means speaking up in a way that attracts public attention regarding the need for foster parents and for resource families who support birth parents, as well as drawing attention to service gaps that impede placement prevention and reunification efforts. Despite the abysmal political culture in this country,  there is a large reservoir of good will and community concern around the plight of abused and neglect children that has barely been tapped. Child welfare leaders who make enlightened contributions to the community in which they live and work have the potential to generate enormous resources and community involvement on behalf of the children and families their agency serves.


A Leadership Imperative


In Servant Leadership: A Journey Into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness (1977), Robert Greenleaf wrote that “A new moral principle is emerging which holds that the only authority deserving one's allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted by the led to the leader in response to … the clearly evident servant stature of the leader. Those who choose to follow this principle will not casually accept the authority of existing institutions. Rather, they will freely respond to individuals … chosen as leaders because they are proven and trusted as servants.

© Dee Wilson


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