January Sounding Board: Leadership and Mismanagement in Child Welfare

January Sounding Board: Leadership and Mismanagement in Child Welfare

Dee Wilson

This month’s Sounding Board is the first of two commentaries regarding leadership and the mismanagement of child welfare systems over decades.

During the summer of 2023, the Washington State Federation of State Employees initiated a vote of ‘no confidence’ in the Secretary of the Department of Children, Youth and Family Services (DCYF), Ross Hunter. In its “Timeline of Events Leading to a No Confidence Vote for DCYF Secretary Ross Hunter,” the union stated: “We have tried to collaborate with Mr. Hunter but have been met with ignorance about the work we do and indifference to the issues we raised, all of which have put children and staff at risk.” The union’s statement summarized in detail a five-year history of frustrating communication with Secretary Hunter regarding lack of placement resources for behaviorally troubled youth, and concerns regarding the safety of child welfare staff responsible for supervision of youth placed in hotels. The union’s explanation of its actions also registered disagreement with Hunter’s lack of opposition to HB 1227 (the “Keeping Families Together Act”) absent an increase in staffing resources and essential services for families, a theme of last month’s Sounding Board. Over the next few months, 1600 out of 2800 DCYF union members signed on to the resolution, 267 votes short of the two-thirds majority required to send the resolution to Governor Inslee.

In my view, it’s unlikely that Ross Hunter would have been fired by the Governor even if the vote of no confidence had the support of two-thirds or more of DCYF union employees, for three main reasons:

  1. Insofar as the vote of no confidence addressed policy issues, those policies have the support of the Governor’s office and key legislators. Policies, placement practices and budgets which have led to hotel placements and 24-hour placements predated the creation of DCYF, and reflect the stubborn resistance of policymakers to doing what is necessary to eliminate (or greatly reduce) these practices. Hunter’s repeated promises to end hotel placements reflects the broken promises of policymakers in both the executive branch and legislature, and indicates strong resistance in Washington state government to large new investments in residential care or more than token investments in professional foster care.
  2. There continues to be widespread support among influential child and parent advocates for the goals of HB 1227, the “Keeping Families Together Act” (KFTA), some of whom support the law based on social values such as family preservation and racial equity regardless of disastrous outcomes. For some of these advocates, Hunter is a champion of progressive values.
  3. The union does not have an influential voice in state policy, in part because neither policymakers or influential advocates care much about child welfare staff’s opinions, or (apparently) their safety. If they did, policymakers would have provided the resources needed to eliminate hotel placements and 24-hour placements several years ago, and would not have allowed unreasonable workload demands to have persisted in child welfare offices for decades.

For the most part, child welfare leaders necessarily support the policy positions endorsed by key policymakers. When the leader of a child welfare system is fired or forced to resign, it is because a Governor wants to distance himself from child welfare decisions that have led to public outrage and to begin anew with child welfare reform. These conditions do not currently exist in Washington State, where the voices of advocates are muted by their need to retain insider status and access to decision makers, and where large parts of the media have little or no interest in child welfare, even in response to horrific child maltreatment deaths.

The importance of leadership

It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance placed on child welfare leadership by policymakers, advocates (including foundations), stakeholders, philanthropists and child welfare staff. However large the differences among these groups in their perceived interests and policy goals, there is widespread agreement that the most effective way to achieve the changes they desire is through support of the head of child welfare and their leadership team.  Newly hired child welfare directors are usually given great discretion to develop a reform agenda that serves broad policy goals such as improving child safety, strengthening child welfare services and community partnerships, reducing the number of children in foster care, etc. As a rule, every group affected by child welfare policy and practice is reenergized (briefly) by the possibility that a recently appointed child welfare director will bring a new vision and new opportunities for child welfare improvements.

Middle managers in a child welfare system are acutely aware that a new child welfare director can “make or break” their careers, while stakeholders and advocates are mobilized to develop a positive relationship with the new management team appointed by the director. Hope springs eternal in the potential of new child welfare leadership to inspire renewed commitment to agency mission among child welfare staff and community professionals, many of whom may feel hopeless regarding the possibility of positive child welfare reforms. An all too brief honeymoon period is typically followed by a more realistic appraisal of a child welfare director who, “warts and all,” is expected to bring a child welfare system out of the doldrums or, in worst case scenarios, virtual chaos. In many cases, disillusionment or outright rejection follows the realization that a child welfare director is unable to change practices deeply embedded in a dysfunctional organizational culture.

How child welfare directors are chosen

For several decades, governors in Washington (as in many other states), have usually appointed child welfare directors who have no background in child welfare and limited knowledge of the field. They do so (it appears) because of widespread dissatisfaction with the state’s child welfare system, which leads to the view that child welfare has been poorly managed. Better to bring in someone from outside child welfare with proven leadership abilities than appoint managers who have spent their careers working in a failed system!

Since 1985, in Washington there has been only one agency director (i.e., Rosie Oreskovich) who was a career child welfare professional in this state. Prior to 2016, when the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) was the umbrella human service agency responsible for child welfare, it was common to appoint child welfare directors from other states, or from other DSHS administrations viewed by DSHS Secretaries as well managed (Juvenile Rehabilitation or Developmental Disabilities) or (once) from business or the University of Washington. Ross Hunter was a former legislator who managed early childhood education services before he was appointed Secretary of DCYF in 2016 and became administratively responsible for child welfare in 2018.  In other states or large counties political leaders have appointed former judges, law enforcement officials, advertising executives or political staffers as the child welfare director.  If a candidate with a background in child welfare management is selected, it is usually a person from out-of-state who has not been discredited by involvement in the state or county’s child welfare system and whose limitations are unknown.

Political leaders have been more interested in the leadership potential of newly appointed child welfare directors than in their understanding of child welfare.  Occasionally, a gifted child welfare director has been able to quickly learn child welfare fundamentals through meetings with experienced staff, stakeholders, advocates and other groups, but only when they have the ability to listen more than they speak, seek out useful information and admit ignorance when they lack requisite knowledge. Egotism is a barrier to learning in these circumstances.

Surprisingly, many child welfare directors across the country have failed to make the slightest impact on state or large county run systems due more to rudimentary leadership mistakes than to lack of knowledge. Arguably, the most common leadership mistake has been to engage in ambitious top-down reform agendas without “buy in” from child welfare staff at all levels, stakeholders, advocates and even key policymakers. Many child welfare reform initiatives are “dead in the water” within a few months because little effort has been made to generate support among child welfare staff and community professionals who must implement the initiative.  Newly appointed directors have often engaged in grandiose strategic planning exercises with much “planning to plan,” without taking immediate action to improve conditions in local offices or any aspect of child welfare practice.

Child welfare directors appointed due to their supposed leadership abilities in Washington and other states have often demonstrated a lack of basic management skills. In addition, when a newly appointed child welfare director turns out to be a micromanager and/or a bully, the director is likely to become exceedingly unpopular with the agency’s management team.  On the other hand, stakeholders and advocates are usually more interested in a director’s stated values, accessibility, and listening skills and in the director’s commitment to their policy goals.  Advocates will often forgive bad behavior of managers who embrace their policy goals, but they detest empty rhetoric, broken promises and outright lying in public statements.

The legacy of leadership  

Many newly appointed child welfare directors are fired, pressured to resign or leave the position voluntarily within 1-2 years, leaving no trace of their leadership initiatives. I recently attended a meeting of stakeholders, advocates and legislators in a state that has had five child welfare directors during the past few years, none of whom seems to have had much impact on the state’s child welfare system. Some directors have a longer tenure, but are quickly forgotten following their departure because their initiatives and policy goals were never embraced by their management teams, supervisors and caseworkers, or by policymakers in the executive branch or legislature. Their influence on the child welfare agency ended as soon as they were no longer in charge, as a new director initiated their own reform agenda.

Leaders who leave a lasting legacy reorient child welfare practice in a way that survives their departure from leadership. This only occurs when key policymakers and child welfare managers and supervisors come to believe in the director’s agenda, a development that depends on the results of implementation of a reform agenda. Inspiring vision statements and heartfelt statements of praiseworthy values do not produce a legacy.

Since 2000, many child welfare directors have been committed to making large reductions in their agency’s foster care population, an easy to measure goal, and a number of jurisdictions have been remarkably successful in doing so. The U.S. foster care population on any one day during the fall of 2023 was 175,000 less than in 2000. A few child welfare directors in New York City, Illinois and Los Angeles County became famous for spearheading foster care reduction initiatives.  A much smaller group of child welfare directors dedicated themselves to building an array of child welfare services, for example, Marc Cherna in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania and several directors in New Jersey.

However, child welfare directors appointed following high profile child fatalities have had great difficulty in demonstrating improvements in child safety, in part because the usual strategies for achieving this goal (e.g., adoption of new assessment tools and practice models) have not had much effect on child protection, and because public agencies lack cogent measures of child safety. For this reason, until recently every child welfare director was vulnerable to being fired following a single child maltreatment death or pattern of such deaths. This is no longer the case in Washington and a few other states where a commitment to family preservation initiatives among advocates and policymakers is so strong that they are resistant to acknowledging or responding to child maltreatment fatalities and near fatalities, or to any other indicator of a failure of child protection such as chronic neglect.

Mentoring subordinate leaders 

Possibly the most enduring legacy of child welfare directors is their influence on subordinate leaders’ internalized models of leadership, i.e., beliefs, attitudes and practices, especially when under pressure to achieve results. A few authors have made fortunes from books on leadership, and most large organizations have leadership training programs. Nevertheless, in my experience self-help books and training programs have far less influence on middle managers and supervisors than the leadership practices modelled by top leaders.

When a child welfare director embodies leadership practices summarized by Jonathn Shay in Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and The Trials of Homecoming (2002), the positive effects on an organization’s culture of leadership extend far beyond the director’s tenure. Shay summarizes the practices of positive leaders as follows:

  • Make it safe to tell the truth.
  • Support subordinate leaders’ professional growth.
  • Assign missions without prescribing the means to accomplish them.
  • Build their competence to assess situations and take the initiative to develop adaptive solutions.
  • Mentor, rather than intimidate, subordinate leaders.
  • Refrain from meddling in their sphere of responsibility.
  • Require subordinate leaders to study their profession.
  • Take responsibility for setting mission and priorities, not assigning every mission as “highest priority, to be done immediately.”
  • Listen to subordinate leaders’ feedback on time budgets and resources, supporting realistic time management
  • Support self-maintenance rather than defeat it.

Leadership practices, like other social behavior, is contagious. In writing about military leadership, Shay has much to say relevant to child welfare leadership of recent decades. He comments: “Leadership truthfulness at all levels means eliminating perverse incentives to look good at the expense of being good,” an axiom that should be taken to heart by child welfare leadership teams in many states that have misused metrics to evaluate performance.

Shay comments on the importance of using “power in accordance with what’s right. Nothing destroys trust in the chain of command so quickly as a leader’s exploitation of institutional power to coerce a private gain from subordinates, be it sexual, financial or careerist. Of these, careerist exploitation is the most frequent and most damaging.”  And, “The competence, consideration and moral integrity with which leaders deploy institutional power are central to vertical cohesion. Everyone watches the trustworthiness of those who wield power above them: and this “fishbowl factor” is far reaching.”

Most directors’ influence on program and policy ends when they leave the position, but their impact on managerial practices and approaches to leadership, for good or ill, is often long lasting. Child welfare staff who are mismanaged are more likely to mismanage relationships with stakeholders, advocates and foster parents. Dysfunctional management of child welfare offices spreads beyond the boundaries of the public agency. Likewise for the positive leadership practices Shay discusses.

Next month’s Sounding Board will discuss managerial practices that persist in child welfare systems regardless of changes in leadership and which, over decades, have created intolerable working conditions in child welfare offices.©


“‘No confidence’ vote against Washington child welfare leader fails to pass,” King 5 News, Seattle, Washington, December 6, 2023.

Shay, J., “Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming,” (2002), Scribner, New York City.

For other Sounding Board articles, visit www.deewilsoncon.com

leadership and mismanagement in CW final (1).docx

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