A Place for Advocacy in Child Welfare Systems: The Case of Adoption
Ward, Margaret, Child Welfare
These are difficult times for social service agencies. In province after province, such severe cutbacks in funding have been made that administrators and line staff members are hard pressed to maintain mandated services, and must rely on a reduced number of personnel. Child welfare organizations are, of course, no exception. Often, the result is increased anxiety as workers spread their efforts thin and fervently hope to avoid a human disaster. In such an atmosphere, advocacy may well be regarded as an unwanted and unneeded intrusion. People who speak out or agitate in their own behalf or for those who cannot speak for themselves demand precious time and attention that could be devoted to the agencies' clients. Yet it is in just such times as these that advocates fill a crucial role.
To comprehend this role better, it is necessary to look in turn at the customary operation of agencies, the process of change, and the place of advocacy in shaping that change. Adoption affords a number of examples.
Everyday System Operation
Understanding change in agencies involves considering their everyday patterns of operation. According to systems theory, organizations try to maintain a steady state by a process of self-correction [Jantsch 1980]. Though some changes and fluctuations may occur both within an organization and its environment, the momentum of established practice tends to keep system operation relatively constant. In a child welfare agency--a specialized form of organization--both written policies and the customary application of regulations serve as a benchmark that maintains consistency in service provision. As a result, both staff members and clients know what to expect. Two examples from the adoption field are illustrative.
For a long time, adoption records were sealed to protect the interests of all parties involved. According to then current theory, biological parents were given a guarantee that their past could not come back to haunt them; adoptive parents were assured that their adopted children were truly theirs, as if born to them; and adoptees did not have to face the confusion of competing sets of parents or the stigma of having been born out-of-wedlock (as was true for most adoptees placed as infants) [Sachdev 1989]. When children were placed for adoption, a certain amount of nonidentifying information was given the parents. Records were opened, however, only when an overriding need, such as a possible genetic disorder, was proven in court. That things are done in a particular way often serves to further foster the belief that the method is inherently correct [Rajecki 1990]. Thus, to the philosophical basis for sealed records was added, in time, the weight of conventional practice.
The adoption of Aboriginal children is a second example. A survey conducted in 1971 found that most provinces with large numbers of these children were placing them in Caucasian families, sometimes by aggressive recruitment programs [Ward 1984]. Beginning about this time, many Aboriginal children from Manitoba were placed in the United States. One American agency involved in over 200 such adoptions worked principally with only two Canadian social workers [Ward & Tremitiere 1994]. In this case, placements through the American agency were facilitated because the machinery was in place and time and effort did not have to be expended on developing new procedures. In fact, a newspaper report from that time stated that such placements could be made more rapidly, and thus more efficiently, than local ones [Pigg 1982].
When practices like the sealing of records or placement patterns become embedded in law, regulation, or customary practice channels, it is often difficult to change them. According to Eoyang , any organization low in differences among its parts and high in communication levels is not particularly adaptable. In established social agency practice, communication often becomes a constant cascade of memos, official forms and statistics, case records, and the like. …