Implications of Media Scrutiny for a Child Protection Agency

Article excerpt

This study examines media impact on job efficacy in a child protection agency. The research uses inductive, holistic research methods to examine the effect of media scrutiny on changes in management dictates, worker duties and responsibilities, and agency services. Data were collected from media sources, interviews, archival materials, and participant observation, then analyzed via qualitative content analysis, providing a basis for rich ethnographic description of perceptions and behavior of diverse groups of people involved in child protection. The study reveals how contradictions in American national culture generate a need for increased communication, understanding, agreement, and support, between various groups of people who influence child protection.

Keywords: child protection agency, media scrutiny, culture, job efficacy

Introduction

In recent years, the media has become an increasingly important influence in shaping public opinion about many aspects of American culture, including the way public service organizations are administered. One aspect of the culture that is often in the news is how Americans provide protection for their children, a popular topic in newspapers, on news reports, and in homes today. Often the media position on this topic is negative, noting that too many children are harmed, and blaming child protection agencies for not preventing these situations from occurring (i.e., "To save the state money, ... children are being left in abusive homes at risk of further harm, according to a judge and a protective services worker ...;" "... one report ... revealed that nearly one-third of 62 children who were abused to death ... died despite making contact with the state CPS system"). Media influence seems to have fostered this sentiment among the general public, which knows little about the organization of agencies responsible for the protection of children, how they operate, make decisions, or cope with their responsibilities, particularly legal ones (Condie et al 1978:47). This general lack of knowledge, coupled with perceptions of many Americans regarding the bureaucratic nature of large agencies, seems to foster public distrust in the ability of a government agency to carry out the function of child protection (Hodges 2002:1).

One common criticism is the bureaucratic nature of public service agencies, often admonished for being overly rule-, regulation-, and authority-oriented, to the point of being impersonal and rigid (Weber 1946). While bureaucratic management is usually recognized as necessary in handling large volumes of activity (Billingsley and Giovannoni 1972), the agencies are also criticized as generators of "red tape" (Nathan 1994:157), a "coercive" deterrent to enthusiasm and job performance of their employees (Weber 1946; Blau 1966; Foner 1995), and adverse to change toward more effective service delivery (Cohen and Austin 1994; Kadushin and Martin 1988).

However, few studies have examined the effect of media scrutiny and criticism on the function of public service agencies and, in particular, of those public social service entities protecting children. This study was designed to investigate media influence on job efficacy in various aspects of the operation of child protection. It explores changes in duties which may be related to media criticism of agency competency. It also examines reactions of social workers to managerial changes induced by media criticism. The agency was selected since it was one of many agencies experiencing intense scrutiny, and it had instituted several changes in operations which seemed to address some aspects of the media criticism.

Background

The purpose of a child protection agency is first, to ensure children protection from harm induced by a person responsible for their well-being and second, to provide help for parents in learning to take responsibility for their children (PS Services Manual 2004:1). …