The trust level between child welfare leaders and local partners will be a key factor in predicting success for any neighborhood-based family support efforts emerging from a Family First Act planning process. One critical move on that path is enmeshing the work of government and community in a way that elevates the latter.
At a government-run child welfare agency, personnel have limitations on their authority and responsibility. Staff function within a vertical framework of prescribed rules and policies.
This is not the case in a community-based setting where the standards for performance are driven by values and vision. Responsibility is shared and dispersed. Decisions tend to be made in a horizontal direction. This is part of the dramatic culture shift that comes with the development of place-based family support services, and public agencies will have to change their preparation of front-line leaders.
Leadership is implied in these externally facing roles for agency staff. They are entrusted with partnerships that include community residents and organizations. It is leadership through service and participation with innovative thinkers and decision-making in the context of a community collaborative.
They help to organize people around a shared set of outcomes. These leaders are part of a collective that is the keeper of the vision and responsible for the sustainability of the movement. Frankly, the partners in the collaborative, and the community residents have more influence over these freshly minted leaders than an agency commissioner or secretary.
Child welfare agency staff should be assigned or allowed to volunteer for roles in community-based settings, and have the opportunity to serve as ambassadors, advocates and advisers. They are representing the agency’s fresh approach to partnering with the community. They are the face of child welfare and through their actions they can change the narrative around child safety and family support.
In both cases their role includes providing an informed perspective for how best to support families in a particular community. Finally, and most critically, they have the unique opportunity to be advisers to their collaborators in the prevention efforts. They can provide credible insight to the community and to their agency, as well as access to resources from government. They advise both vertically and horizontally.
Turning agency employees into local leaders is not easy. There are those who have the innate requisite skills and take on a leadership role naturally. They have an abundance of emotional intelligence, are skilled listeners and function comfortably with ambiguity. Intuitively proactive, these leaders take information and translate it into action. Most notably, they make themselves vulnerable, because they put aside the “badge” of the child protection system.
But many will need guidance and encouragement from their parent agency. That might be an awkward challenge for public child welfare agencies that have spent decades routinizing the most basic of tasks, where decision-making and assessments are prescribed and the system is driven by a rigid set of laws and policies with more time spent on paperwork than family engagement.
The right candidate has spontaneity, in-depth independent assessment and judgment skills and influences others through the power of relationships. Their leadership is not enhanced because of their affiliation with the public child welfare system. Instead, it is through their service and support of the community partnerships and their respect for diverse perspectives.
There is a parallel to this. In the 1960’s, Dr. George Land was asked by NASA to conduct a study of the creative potential of rocket scientists. Later, he applied his curiosity and testing program to a group of 1,600 children between the ages of 4 and 5.
Ninety-eight percent of those kids scored at genius level. Several years later, the same group was tested and the number dropped to 30%. When they reached high school, the number was only 12%. By the time they were adults, the number had decreased to less than 2%.
Land believed that non-creative behavior is learned. A key feature of his theory – humans adjust their behavior based on their interaction with their environment and the systems that encourage us to be good workers and follow instructions. But always reverting to the most efficient tried and true, or the current best practices, does not encourage a next level of innovation.
The more ideas generated, without replication, the better the chances you have of finding a good one. In short, the volume of ideas and encounters matters.
Land’s thinking is gold for agencies that need competent, creative leaders who can interact with the multiple partners exploring ways to keep kids safe and families strong. The enhancement of prevention and family support strategies will come at many levels. Child welfare agencies should be prepared to develop, nurture and sustain their community-based representatives as leaders if they hope to be taken seriously.