I’ve spent more than a quarter-century in child welfare agencies in multiple jurisdictions. I’ve seen the social and organizational challenges. I’ve experienced the heartbreak and frustration. I’ve also felt the pride of leading or contributing to measurable improvements in the results an agency is delivering.
During my tenure at the Baltimore City Department of Social Services, we produced some amazing tangible outcomes. Over a decade, we reduced the number of children in foster care by 72 percent. We reduced the number of kids in orphanages by 89 percent. We placed nearly 14,000 children into permanent homes. And we implemented systems and processes so that we were able to distribute food stamps accurately—and within 24 hours—for five years straight.
These experiences convinced me that it is indeed possible to get government moving and to achieve higher efficiency and better outcomes. But they also made me realize that it’s time for us to question everything we think we know about what constitutes “help” for children and families.
Through this blog series, I’m going to challenge my peers in human services to question whether the current operating model is designed to truly benefit the vulnerable lives we’re charged with protecting. Together, let’s take a hard look at the assumptions that guide our thinking, the metrics that shape our actions and the processes we’ve been following for decades.
For starters, is removing abused and neglected children from their parents always the best course of action? What are signs we should watch for so that we can intervene sooner, potentially helping families avoid crisis in the first place? How might we harness all of the knowable information—and the incredibly powerful analytics that are available today—to surface issues that can be tackled at a macro level rather than child by child, family by family?
Now, I want to pause here and make it clear: I’m not saying we should leave any child in harm’s way. In those instances, we must act to ensure the child is taken to safety. But my experience has taught me that far too many kids are removed from their homes when there are better ways to meet their—and their families’—needs. Too often, our child welfare agencies mistake poverty for neglect. And getting sucked into and, in many cases, stuck within the foster care system dramatically increases the odds that those same kids will end up in the morgue, the penitentiary or back in the system when their own kids are removed from their care.
That isn’t much “help” at all, is it?
I submit to you that what we’re doing now in child welfare simply isn’t working. So, we won’t make things better just by getting faster or more efficient at the same old stuff. The only way to make things truly better is through a fundamental rethink of child welfare.
If you’re a bold leader who’s ready to see real change, join me in this journey—and share your thoughts about how we can transform the work we do.