Over the past four decades, child welfare agencies have placed significant emphasis on clarifying and enumerating values. As they shifted practice, many introduced these changes by espousing the values supporting the model. And when developing strategic plans, agencies often included value statements as an integral part of these plans.
Presumably part of the motivation for doing this was an assumption that values influence behavior. Espoused values suggest a predisposition to choose one action over another. This is partially true. At the same time, it is misleading about the role values play in behavior.
It is true that people’s actions often follow their values. But it is also common that values are formed and adopted to justify repeated behavior, or that they are used situationally and followed only when convenient. While they may predict behavior under certain circumstances, they are not a perfect predictor of all responses under the same circumstances. Nor do value statements by themselves clearly define the assumptions and beliefs driving them.
To better understand this, it is helpful to examine the role values play in culture. Edgar Schein defines culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group has learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid, and therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel relative to those problems.”
Schein identifies three distinct levels of culture. The first level is artifacts. These are visible structures, customs and processes and are hard to decipher as to their real meaning. In child welfare artifacts include procedures, protocols and organizational structures as examples.
The second level is espoused values, such as strategies, goals, philosophies. These serve as justifications. The following examples are taken from one jurisdiction’s practice model:
· Families are the focus of child welfare: preserving families, supporting foster families, building new adoptive families, and ensuring child and teen attachment to families.
· We recognize that all families have strengths and deserve a voice in decisions about their children.
· We serve families from diverse cultural backgrounds in a responsive manner.
These are all powerful and useful statements. Yet the underlying assumptions and beliefs driving them are not entirely clear.
The third and foundational level of culture is basic underlying assumptions. These are unconscious, taken-for-granted beliefs, perceptions, thoughts and feelings. These underlying assumptions and beliefs are the ultimate source of values and action. As an example, the current discussion about the conflation of poverty and neglect represents an effort to challenge current operational assumptions and beliefs about the relationship between these two phenomena.
This discussion is exposing the reality that members of society hold differing assumptions and beliefs about individual responsibility for both poverty and neglect. Going back to the Elizabethan Poor Laws, one segment of society has long held that the poor are poor because they are feckless, lacking initiative or strength of character, and irresponsible.
Another segment of society holds the belief that poverty exists because of bigger systems: changing market demand for skills or labor, gaps in social safety nets, the high costs of education and health, or because of systemic discrimination. Poverty exists for all these interlocking reasons and is compounded by the interaction of causes and effects. So personal responsibility is not the singular defining explanation of poverty.
Disentangling poverty from neglect will be difficult without changing the underlying beliefs held by a politically powerful segment of society that holds fast to the first definition of poverty. Underlying assumptions and beliefs are so powerful that behavior rarely deviates from their implied way of thinking, feeling or acting to solve a problem.
Why is this distinction important? Having read many agency’s models of practice, I have frequently found lists of espoused values about how families and children are to be served. At the same time, I have rarely found coherent statements as to the agency’s assumptions and beliefs about why child abuse or neglect manifest themself in families, what family factors must be influenced to prevent its recurrence, and how these individual and collective factors are best influenced.
To be sure there have been advances in this regard. Signs of Safety and Solution Based Casework are two examples of intervention models that put forward a set of assumptions and beliefs about necessary components for effective change within maltreating families. Methods adopted from solution-focused therapies challenged the assumption that one must know about the cause of human behavior to change patterns of behavior. Work by the National Research Council has identified a comprehensive array of risk factors associated with child maltreatment, though research has not fully unlocked the key to how these factors interact or combine to result in abuse or neglect.
The underlying assumptions and beliefs about cause and effect in addressing child abuse or neglect are not clearly articulated by child welfare agencies, nor agreed upon by their leadership. One need only to look at the wide variety of family assessment protocols employed across jurisdictions. Similarly, though physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse and emotional abuse exhibit unique characteristics, a “onetoolfits-all” approach to family assessment and case planning remains common in many jurisdictions.
Unless the field of child welfare searches beneath espoused values and devotes more attention to underlying assumptions and beliefs behind its approach, advances in reducing the recurrence of abuse and neglect likely will remain stagnant with children and families paying a dear price for continued reliance on values alone as a primary answer to defining agency strategies.
This is not to say values are unimportant. Rather, it is to say that they are limiting in their ability to explain the phenomenon we seek to change and the assumptions behind how we attempt to do that.
As well, it is not just the assumptions and beliefs of those within the child welfare field that matter. Society’s assumptions and beliefs about child abuse and neglect drive the politics surrounding how they will be defined and treated. Those who are calling for fundamental changes in the way child welfare operates must simultaneously consider the body politic surrounding child welfare as it currently is structured and exists.
As Lincoln said, “Public sentiment is everything.”