Former State Judge/Agency Director James Payne on Improving Child Welfare

James Payne led the dependency and juvenile courts in Marion County, Ind., for 20 years, and then left to help former Gov. Mitch Daniels overhaul the state’s child welfare agency.

He is now with the Public Consulting Group (PCG), which provides financial and operational assistance to the public sector agencies involved in education, child welfare and a host of other issues.

With little fanfare, Payne has written a trilogy of white papers under the heading “Beyond Quick Fixes: What Will It Really Take To Improve Child Welfare in America?”

We thought they were worth steering people towards. The papers are housed in the child welfare section of PCG’s website, and here are some of the thoughts expressed by Payne:

1) Case Transfers

The hand-off of foster youth from one worker to the next is a driving force in the wrong direction when it comes to permanency, Payne argues. His key piece of evidence: A study of foster youths in Milwaukee County, Wis. Of the 679 foster youths who entered care and then exited to permanency within a year, 75 percent had one worker.

The obvious policy recommendation to spin off that is hiring more caseworkers. But Payne suggests that systems consider the elimination of specialty positions, which frequently force the hand-off of cases, and the use of dual assignments or caseworker teams.

When it does come to hiring more workers, Payne pushes for “overfill,” the practice of hiring with an expectation of future turnover. It is foolhardy, he argues, to wait until vacancies are open to begin looking to fill them with someone that will be in training for most of their first year.

2) Curbing Turnover

Turnover is a pervasive problem, Payne argues. For veterans, it often stems from a cocktail of burnout, trauma and frustration.

There is little to be done about the fact that tense work involving the abuse and neglect of children takes a serious mental toll. But there are other reasons for turnover that Payne believes are indicative of another problem: the professional profile and guarantees of working in child protection.

Improvements to the profession begin with an instillation of a pay scale akin to the one afforded to police, says Payne:

“Caseworkers face enormous challenges and responsibilities, making multiple life-impacting decisions every hour of every day, often without the same benefits and tools that other first responders have. There is no reason why caseworkers should not receive the same pay considerations that other first responders traditionally have.”

Other suggestions he makes: sophisticated technology for the field, and opportunities to rotate workers out of the way of traumatic experiences (worker mentoring positions, sabbaticals, and training/education periods).

3) Leadership Hires

With tours of duty leading the court of Indiana’s most populous county and directing the state’s Department of Child Services, Payne has certainly earned the right to speak on what it takes to be a good leader in this field.

It might come as a surprise, though, how little that depth of experience matters to him in terms of leadership.

“The candidate for leadership of the agency need not have extensive knowledge and understanding of the child protection and child welfare system,” Payne wrote. The system is far too complex and intricate to expect extensive expertise.”

While child welfare leaders were almost entirely groomed through the ranks until the 1990s, Payne notes, more recently states and counties have hired from outside the system.

This, he writes, can help guard against protectionism and reflects that fact that the “skills of leadership are often not necessarily connected with a business entity or product itself, but with the skills of effective leadership.”

John Kelly is the editor-in-chief of The Imprint.

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