I’m not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions. They’re more of a sugar high than an actual meal. I favor the twelve step practice of daily introspection and ongoing self-reflection. It’s more realistic, longer lasting and helps us to understand the complexity of the tasks involved with real change. That’s because continuous examination requires us to ask: how I am being called to improve and to reflect on my decisions?
Regardless, it is time for us in child welfare to do some fearless soul searching as we begin 2022. We owe it to the public we serve and to each other to have a few difficult conversations. Otherwise, we will be driven by the crises and confusion of each day, or by goals that are unrealistic.
I recommend that every public and private child welfare agency, regardless of size, take the opportunity of a new calendar year to reflect on three issues and to create a process for a regularly scheduled inventory of their progress.
The first of these three conversations should be about the role of poverty and race in the lives of so many families we serve. Are we serving the right people, offering the right levels of support, in the most effective and respectful way possible? Is our agency making the appropriate distinction between poverty and neglect? And the most difficult, nuanced question: even if we backed a dump truck full of money to a home, will that financial security improve parental capacity, child safety and family well-being outcomes? Are there points of intersection with poverty, race, generational trauma, parental substance use and mental health disorders and our responsibility for child safety, permanency and well-being? Every agency should assess and have a clear view of the acceptable balance between parental responsibility and the social forces that impact child safety and family well-being.
The next conversation should be about performance measures. Are we prioritizing the key measures of our work? Maybe it is out of vogue to do so but in my national perch I’m not hearing many conversations about improved child safety practices or family functioning, in spite of a rampant adult substance use epidemic.
Topics like decreasing first-time reports and repeat incidents of maltreatment, or reducing response time and ensuring successful reunifications of children with their families are not intersecting with our robust and timely conversations about prevention and family support. Agencies should have a plan that connects their upstream efforts and child safety, permanency, and family well-being. Those outcomes are the holy trinity of standards to which the public holds us accountable. The beginning of the year is a symbolic point in time for us to reflect on the depth of our efforts to enhance our performance in each of those spheres.
When considering performance measures, let’s avoid the grandiosity of imagining child welfare agencies as the vanguards for social change. Agencies should ask themselves, and clarify, for whom are we “change agents”? It’s true that we function within a complex web of injustice, especially as it relates to class and race, and that our practice with families must account for historical imbalances. But at the end of the day, kids and their parents deserve a highly competent, committed and unwavering cadre of professionals devoted solely to their safety and well-being that can be measured.
The final point of reflection is the existential crisis facing our profession, the recruitment and retention of a trained and healthy workforce. There has always been a churn within our agencies, but never quite like this. I know of child welfare organizations that have a 50% vacancy rate with no candidates in the queue. We cannot compare ourselves to restaurants or other businesses that are having staff shortages. Our work is too crucial.
We should not be satisfied with hiring candidates who are marginally capable. There are many jobs and career paths that demand sacrifice and do not pay terribly well, but continue to attract interest. That used to be the case in our profession. Until we figure out and agree on what went wrong and how we win young people back to child welfare, we can expect mediocre results and a spiraling descent into daily chaos.
Organizational self-reflection is never easy, but it does enable us to accumulate a collection of incremental improvements, which are the basis for transformation. If we add the voices of our community and family partners, the conversations are simultaneously challenging and rewarding. I’d like to think that our current way of doing things in child welfare can evolve with grace, wisdom and courage, but that won’t happen with a few well-meaning resolutions. We need to distinguish between all that is possible, all that is not and all that we are called on to do.