A New Management Model for Child Welfare; True Reform Means Doing Things Differently

Article excerpt

Many solutions have been proposed for dealing with the child welfare crisis, but one area of need rarely receives the attention it deserves: agency management. This lack of attention is surprising because child welfare agencies have fundamental weaknesses in the way they operate.

Management shortcomings have figured prominently in most of the major lawsuits brought against child welfare departments in recent years. Many of these legal actions have been prompted by the failure of agencies to perform tasks they were supposed to do as a matter of routine--administer diagnostic tests, prepare case plans, make home visits, obtain medication. The lawsuits also charge that, rather than functioning according to established plans and procedures, agencies are chaotic and driven by the crisis of the moment.

While it is clear that child welfare agencies face unprecedented pressures and demands, it is also apparent that they are not currently able to make the best possible use of their resources. Nor does there seem to be any concerted effort to improve agency management; most of the activity of this type has resulted from ad hoc initiatives imposed by courts.

Consequently, child welfare administrators are forced to manage without a national consensus on how best to organize, staff, and deliver services. New policy mandates are piled on agencies that are staggering under an accumulation of unfulfilled directives and compliance tests that are, at best, only tangentially related to program quality. The child welfare system basically runs without adequate direction, burning out caseworkers and short-circuiting initiatives such as family preservation while failing to adequately meet the needs of millions of children and their parents.

We do not contend that improving agency management should take precedence over improving program design or the quest for increased funding. This is not an either-or situation. We do argue, however, that improvements in agency management should be made immediately, while debates over policy and funding continue; and until agency management is improved, the same problems that plague today's child welfare system will undercut and curtail any gains that are made on other fronts.

This article shows how administrators can make the best possible use of available resources and improve the effectiveness of the services they provide. It is based on our experience working with state and county agencies that are seeking innovative approaches to the management of child welfare programs. A Framework for Improved Management

We believe that child welfare agencies can improve their performance and become more effective by implementing improved management principles and practices. The elements of the approach we advocate are summarized in the new program management model illustrated in the accompanying chart.

The management model is intended to enable a child welfare agency to achieve three interrelated objectives:

* To define what it seeks to achieve, what role it plays, and whom it serves.

* To operate in an organized and systematic manner. The model provides the means for accurately ascertaining an agency's service-giving capacity and for budgeting the application of its resources in relation to the defined purposes and goals.

* To obtain more insight into what works and what does not in terms of service approaches. The model calls for continuously measuring the extent to which the agency follows its own game plan and the extent to which client outcomes are in line with those the agency wishes to see occur. This process provides the information needed to learn from successes and failures.

The new management model thus promotes a logical, systematic approach to child welfare program management. Although no agency has yet implemented this model in its entirety, its components are all in the developmental stages within a variety of agencies around the country that are representative of child welfare agencies generally. …