Academic journal article Child Welfare

Soft Is Hardest: Leading for Learning in Child Protection Services Following a Child Fatality

Academic journal article Child Welfare

Soft Is Hardest: Leading for Learning in Child Protection Services Following a Child Fatality

Article excerpt

The way in which a child protection agency responds to a child fatality always has a strong influence on subsequent practice. Very often, organizational responses and child death reviews are punitive and escalate an already anxious and defensive organizational culture. This paper outlines an alternative approach that not only helps staff to manage their emotional responses but also encourages and prioritizes a learning culture within the organization throughout the crisis and in the longer term.

In this special issue on preventing severe child maltreatment injuries and fatalities, we focus our paper on how child protection leaders can respond constructively to a serious child injury or death so the responses themselves do not generate adverse effects but rather assist the organization to become focused on learning how to improve protective services. The traditional reaction to a troubling death usually involves public declarations by politicians and child protection leaders that "lessons will be learned." Much effort then goes into child death reviews to find those lessons and to develop recommendations on how to avoid mistakes or practice deficiencies in the future. Such reviews have been major drivers of change in child protection services in many countries (Brandon et. al., 2009; Kuijvenhoven & Kortleven, 2010; Munro, 2004,2005,2010; Parton, 2008), but we contend that these types of reviews have also often been counterproductive.

Societies increasingly hold the view, fed by sensationalist media coverage, that a child death is proof that some professional did something wrong. Public criticism and the political salience of these events biases the change agenda towards "top down," rapidly implementable, set-piece solutions such as increasing practice monitoring and compliance measures. Such changes tend to be instigated in an atmosphere of distress and blame, encouraging greater defensiveness in an already anxious workforce. This narrow approach to creating change ignores the complex reality of what it means to make predictions and take action in conditions of uncertainty that operate in and around every child protection case.

The heart of a child protection system's capacity to improve children's safety lies in the quality of service that front line workers offer to families. Procedures and monitoring are important, but they have little value unless agency practitioners have the skills to:

* Think through family strengths and dangers, enabling explicit risk assessments,

* Lead explicit decisionmaking about the best course of action for children, and

* Engage with families to help them to change

There is a saying in management that "the hard is easy and the soft is hard."1 Deliverables such as legislative change, a policy rewrite, a new computer system, an organizational restructure, a child death review, compliance measures, or adopting a particular practice model, while challenging to implement, are the more brick-like components of an effective child protection organization. They are necessary but not sufficient. The harder work almost always lies in the soft stuff, the mortar that holds these tangible elements together. The "soft" stuff resides in the skillfulness of the professionals, which is determined by the human attitudes and responses to the uncertainty and anxiety of child protection work that either elicit or diminish intelligence and practice depth.

Transforming child protection practice depends on professional leadership focused on the actual interactions frontline practitioners have with parents and children, paying attention to the emotional as well as the cognitive dimensions of the work, and continually learning about the impact of the work on children and families. The defensive compliance culture that has become dominant in many jurisdictions prioritizes deliverables that can be counted, and constantly undermines the capacity to pay attention to what counts most, namely the skills: (a) to determine how safe children are, (b) provide effective help, and (c) find out whether children are being helped, or possibly even harmed, by their contact with child protection services. …

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