Models of Excellence in Child Welfare: Three Offices

(Originally published May 2018)

Child welfare agencies around the country are rapidly losing their institutional memory through retirements, high turnover rates and changes in leadership. Child welfare leaders may have little or no knowledge of agency initiatives that occurred more than a few years ago and before the reforms of their immediate predecessor.  In some child welfare offices, few, if any, caseworkers have more than five years of experience; for these staff, events that occurred more than a decade ago are ancient history, the stuff of legend, if indeed they have any curiosity whatsoever regarding the history of a state's child welfare system or of a specific office.  Even experienced staff may have never been part of, or in extensive contact with, a high functioning unit or office that had a strong sense of mission; let alone felt pride in the work, had strong community support and outstanding leadership.  Child advocates and critics of child welfare often paint child welfare systems with a broad brush, i.e., virtually as 'failed systems' due to resource deficits, staff shortages, design flaws, racial disproportionality, coercive mistreatment of low income families and various other seemingly endemic flaws.  It's rare to read positive stories about a local child welfare agency with the possible exception of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania's child welfare system. What would an outstanding child welfare agency look like?  How would outstanding performance be developed and sustained?


Three Child Welfare Offices – Stories from the Past 


During the 1990's in Washington State there were several offices that had strong community support with many experienced and talented staff at all levels, along with leaders who had excellent reputations internally and among community stakeholders. Three of these offices are described below but others could be mentioned.

Office A


Office A was a medium sized office distant from the region's headquarters.  The office served two large counties without many community services.  Child welfare staff had strong partnerships with local law enforcement agencies;  an emergency response CPS investigator sometimes rode with sheriff’s deputies at all hours of the day and night, an arrangement that could have led some families to believe that CPS and law enforcement were a single entity. However, the emergency response CPS investigator and other CPS staff had an exceptional ability to bring calm and reason to volatile situations and, in doing so, reduced parents' sense of threat which can result from CPS investigations. CPS staff had outstanding assessment skills that included quick recognition of what would now be described as safety threats. The office's child protection practice touched most families lightly without providing many voluntary services, given that neither the child welfare office or other human service agencies in the counties had many services to offer.  This office had one of the lowest out-of-home placement rates in the region.  However, once children were placed out of the home, the office's child welfare services unit moved children into permanency with great efficiency and resolve. The office's area administrator disliked continuances of legal hearings, or any other obstacle which led to extended lengths of stay in foster care.


Veteran staff gradually developed an articulate set of expectations for new caseworkers. According to retired veteran who worked in the office for 20 years, “We told new people that they owed every … (parent and child) an objective fact based management of cases, with rational thought put into every decision.”  This office's practice model combined the strengths of its experienced CPS investigators with its supervisors' and administrator's intense focus on timely permanent planning: touch families lightly whenever possible, calm everyone down during CPS investigations, and apply reason to generate practical solutions to parenting challenges, act swiftly and decisively when children are in danger, complete permanent plans for children in foster care without delay, join with other community agencies to make child welfare work. 


Office A became self reliant by necessity; it was distant from regional managers who were usually not much interested in the office's challenges or resource deficits. Office A disliked regional interference in its affairs, and it's staff had especially disliked trainers from the largest office in the region attempting to change its practice.  Office A staff became skilled at passive/ aggressive ways of making outsiders feel uncomfortable without being overtly rude, a fine line that an outsider could sense but usually not clearly describe. 


Regional managers eventually recognized the strengths of Office A, but its model proved difficult to replicate. First and foremost, the Office A model requires outstanding assessment and engagement skills at first point of contact with families, skills that are acquired through  long experience and are partially the product of individual temperament.  It also requires collaborative relationships with other community agencies that take years to develop, and the respect of the local juvenile court based on consistent conscientious performance and sound judgment of casework staff.  This model cannot be created through policy requirements; it requires a collegial approach to leadership that is unusual in child welfare or any other human services bureaucracy.


Office B


Office B was a large office also distant from the region's Headquarters.  Office B may have had a higher percentage of caseworkers with MSW’s than any other office in the state. Caseworkers who lacked an MSW had no chance of becoming a supervisor in this office. Office B was the only child welfare office I ever encountered that engaged in overt succession planning regarding its leadership.  Caseworkers and supervisors were constantly assessed by the area administrator for leadership potential, and all staff in the office understood who was in line for promotion to area administrator, even though the selection of area administrators was the responsibility of the regional administrator.  


Every facet of child welfare practice was effectively managed with a strong emphasis on collaborative relationships with other key agencies and their managers. Supervisors and caseworkers who aspired to become supervisors were encouraged to join community boards, advisory committees and inter-agency teams.  Supervisors met with the area administrator frequently, both individually and in supervisors' meetings. The expectations of supervisors were clearly articulated in these meetings, and there could be no question of a supervisor stepping out of line either internally or in the community if they wanted to remain in favor and with a potential for promotion. Supervisors, in turn, were given the latitude to supervise their units without micromanagement. Supervisors had the permission to strongly express their disagreement with an area administrator's decision, as long as they understood when to stop resisting and fall in line with the AA's decision.  If and when the area administrator failed to listen to supervisors' views patiently and respectfully, internal tensions developed which had the potential to undermine the office's effective functioning.


Office B had good to excellent practice from its intake unit to permanent planning units, along with well developed community collaborations that included a child advocacy center, specialized foster care programs and an array of family support services. Office B was one of the first offices in the state to develop a foster parent/birth parent mentoring project with foundation funding, and the first CA office to become accredited during the early 2000's.  Office B was capable of taking on big challenges for a common goal when the supervisors and area administrators were in agreement.  Area administrators understood the need for supervisory “buy in” before taking on a difficult challenge that involved every unit in the office. 


Office B, like Office A, did not welcome regional interference in its operation, yet the office needed regional support for its succession plan and its fair share of regional resources.  Some area administrators craved regional and statewide recognition of its exceptional practice;  others were more concerned with maintaining the independence of the office than with  recognition from regional and CA Headquarters managers.  Office B was widely viewed within the region as “arrogant” due to the poorly disguised belief of some of its staff that it had the best overall personnel in the region and possibly the state.  At the same time, it's no-nonsense effective chain of command was admired by CA managers in other regions and the state office, especially by managers who had difficulty influencing the practice of offices in their region or area of the state. 


Office C


Office C was a large office located in the same building as the regional headquarters.  Prior to the creation of the Division of Children and Family Services in 1984,  Office C was managed by DSHS administrators from the Community Services Offices (CSO's) who knew little or nothing about child welfare and were indifferent to child welfare performance until or unless child welfare staff attracted unfavorable attention due to negative state or federal audits, or high profile cases with bad outcomes.  Some units in the office, especially one CPS unit, responded to managerial indifference with outreach to professionals and community agencies whose expertise and resources they needed for children and families on their caseloads.  One unit in the office created a multidisciplinary team to staff serious CPS cases.  This team met weekly for decades with some team members staffing cases for 25 years or more.  Another unit in the office created a second CPT a few years later. These teams provided extraordinary expertise for decision making and quick access to essential resources, as well as emotional support for child welfare staff not available from agency managers. These relationships eventually led to a wide range of other collaborative projects that included early intervention by public health nurses, CPS caseworkers out-stationed in an elementary school, the co-location of CPS investigators with law enforcement staff, the development of a child advocacy center that also provided a wide range of services to chronically neglecting families, a partnership with a local crisis nursery and with prevention advocates in the community.


The CPS unit at the center of many of these projects had a staff for several years whose average child welfare experience was 8 years.  The office also had experienced and highly capable foster care and adoption units.  One adoption unit with 6 caseworkers regularly completed 100-120 adoptions annually, more than double the average completed adoptions per caseworker in most other offices.  Some units in Office C provided families with large amounts of family support services without much regard for budgetary limits.  Office C area administrators were intensely concerned with workload management, and used a wide array of strategies to keep  the number of CPS assignments under control and CWS caseloads within reasonable limits.  


The creation of DCFS led to a change in regional managers.  Office C was fortunate to become the responsibility of one of the most talented regional administrators who ever worked in the state's child welfare system for more than 15 years. This RA supported the innovations and collaborative partnerships that were already in place in the region at the time of his appointment, and also encouraged the spirit of initiative and innovation that had become the hallmark of the office. The RA also influenced top CA managers in Olympia to adopt some of the same practices that were being used in Office C, for example use of multidisciplinary teams, in statewide initiatives with mixed results. In some offices, frequent use of CPT's led to

more conflict with other community professionals rather than improved community collaboration. 


Office C was viewed as obnoxious and out of control by some CA Headquarters managers due to its overt disdain for the chain of command and its habitual overspending, and these feelings intensified when some Office C staff began to have a role in policy development.  Periodic efforts were made to teach some Office C staff viewed as arrogant and insufferable by Headquarters managers a lesson regarding their proper place in the world.  However, nothing top CA managers did had much effect on Office C's practice until the RA retired.  At that point, a new RA was appointed who was in many ways the opposite of the administrator who had created the best support for local office innovations in the state.  Persistent efforts were made to bring the office under control and induce respect for the normal ways bureaucracies function, i.e., top-down, with an emphasis on compliance with agency policies, procedures and budgets. 




Offices A, B and C were similar in their commitment to strong community collaborations which gave their staff timely access to expertise and essential resources, and which provided the managers of these offices and their regional managers with much needed political support at the local level. These offices had a high percentage of experienced, knowledgeable and committed staff at all levels, i.e., casework staff, supervisors and managers. All three offices had excellent leadership during the 1990's but with very different approaches to leadership which might be described as collegial (Office A), effective chain of command (Office B) and innovative (Office C). The child welfare practices these offices were most proud of proved difficult or impossible to replicate in other CA offices around the state. The outstanding functioning of these offices for a few years depended on specific personnel with unusual talents, vigorous partnerships with community agencies that depended partly on the attitudes and beliefs of leaders of other organizations and policy frameworks that were less comprehensive and demanding than the ones in place currently.  Traces of these past organizational cultures remain in these offices today though few of their staff, new or experienced, have any understanding of the histories of their offices. Child welfare is a world characterized by amnesia: out of sight, out of mind.


Offices A and B benefited from their distance from their regional offices, and both offices employed a range of strategies to limit regional interference in their affairs, for example through careful budgeting and investment in looking good on audits. Office B managed its relationship with regional managers in the same way that all important relationships were managed. Key relationships could not always be controlled but no important relationship was left to the unpredictable interactions of key actors. Region C's culture of innovation arose spontaneously out of indifferent/punitive mismanagement, and was then sustained through the support of a regional administrator who took the office as he found it, supported initiative on all fronts and added his own creative leadership initiatives along the way.    


A friend of mine has a saying worth considering:  all child welfare is local.  Statewide initiatives have a low batting average in child welfare in this state and most other states.  Many, perhaps most, of these initiatives make agency practice worse rather than better, in part because  project managers pay insufficient attention to creating support among middle managers and supervisors for changes in practice,  and because top managers underestimate the long term challenges of implementation.  It's time to consider a different relationship between state run child welfare systems and local office control of reform initiatives. 



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