The Sounding Board: Leadership and Mismanagement in Child Welfare

The Sounding Board: Leadership and Mismanagement in Child Welfare

By Dee Wilson: this and previous Sounding Board articles can be found at


It is common for books and articles on organizational leadership to make a strict distinction between leadership and management. Acco­rding to this perspective, outstanding leaders develop a strategic vision of an organization’s future and inspire and motivate employees and others to embrace this vision; while managers are responsible for implementation planning and execution. Many child welfare directors have relatively brief tenures, and are subject to termination or pressure to resign for a variety of reasons. Mid-level managers, on the other hand, often remain in their positions for many years and may work for several directors in their career. In addition, child welfare directors must work with a bureaucracy that has civil service protections, and manage line units through lengthy policy and procedural manuals whose managerial DNA is to steadily expand to conform with new legislation and policy directives. No child welfare leader has the power to ignore or overturn bureaucratic frameworks, though they can change many (but not all) specific policies.

In reality, child welfare directors (like most leaders of other organizations) are actively involved in managing child welfare systems in a variety of ways:
⦁ appointing top managers and modeling an approach to supervision of managers who report directly to them;
⦁ approving budgets and deciding on formulas for the allocation of funds to regions and local offices;
⦁ using data and other information to evaluate the performance of regions and local offices;
⦁ developing relationships with policymakers, judges, directors of other agencies and with leaders of stakeholder groups, foster parent associations, parent and child advocates and with the media;
⦁ deciding on the pace and extent of reform initiatives and y adjusting implementation to events on the ground and preliminary outcomes; and
⦁ recognizing and eliminating mismanagement of regions and offices, e.g., bullying.

No sensible child welfare director would delegate responsibility for these functions to an assistant director, while spending most of their time developing vision statements, handling public relations and managing the child welfare system’s relationship with the Governor’s office and key legislators. There may be foundations that operate in this way (to their detriment), but not state or large county run child welfare systems.

The leadership paradigm that elevates ‘visioning’ and strategic planning over the day-to-day management of organizations is a variation of the theme, leaders vs. followers. This is a pernicious version of leadership that damages any organization which adopts it. The result is likely to be vainglorious leaders of organizations in which all good ideas must emanate from the top and in which employees at all levels are rewarded for asking “how”, not “why?” Critical thinking is suppressed or punished in organizations led by narcissists.

Effective leaders do the opposite, i.e., they de-emphasize their importance by intentionally developing leadership skills among their subordinates, spread the opportunity for leadership initiatives throughout the organization, take the time to create “buy-in” for reform initiatives so that practice changes are likely to be sustained after the child welfare director leaves the agency, and elicit ideas for practice and policy changes from units and offices, rather than solely from legislators, the Governor’s Office, influential advocates and stakeholders.

The effectiveness of child welfare directors and other top managers can be adequately assessed only after they leave the agency. Did they achieve anything of importance in delivering services to children, families, foster parents and stakeholders? Are the practice changes implemented during their tenure viewed as integral to “best practice” by line units and community partners several years after their departure? If not, their vision and aspirational goals embodied in reform initiatives were of little or no consequence, or actually detrimental.

The mismanagement of child welfare

I have periodically discussed issues related to organizational leadership and widespread bureaucratic practices in child welfare agencies in Sounding Board commentaries for more than a decade. I have found that commentaries regarding leadership issues usually elicit much more response from readers than discussions of bureaucratic practices that are the foundation of child welfare management. I have also done extensive training on organizational issues for child welfare supervisors in Washington State. As a rule, there has been far more resistance among supervisors to critical thinking about organizational practices than reflecting on how they interact with caseworkers in their unit and the area administrator to whom they report. Why? Possibly because bureaucratic frameworks are taken as a given, something outside of the control of staff at all levels, and because caseworkers, supervisors and managers need to be able to operate effectively within this framework. Developing ways of resisting a bureaucracy is often viewed by child welfare staff as useless and self-defeating. Why bother?
For this reason, the following managerial practices are rarely the subject of reflection and discussion either within or outside child welfare agencies:

  • Policy manuals for specific programs steadily expand and may be hundreds of pages in length. Even experienced caseworkers, supervisors and managers may not have detailed knowledge of large parts of these manuals. Staff at all levels learn the survival skill of “reading” the manager above them in the hierarchy regarding which policies must be followed and which can be ignored. However, a top manager can suddenly change their priorities, leaving everyone below them in the chain of command vulnerable to criticism (or worse) for failure to comply with policy requirements that have heretofore been ignored with the implicit permission of top managers.
  • Managerial expectations regarding casework practice may not reflect workload pressures or resource constraints, or moderate managers’ responses to unit or office ratings on performance indicators. In these circumstances, caseworkers and supervisors often find ways of “gaming” performance indicators, e.g., measures of child safety. Every performance indicator can be “gamed,” but some measures are easier to manipulate, (absent outright lying) than others. One of the easiest measures to “game” is an office’s rate of more than one substantiated CPS report on a family within 12 months, i.e., the “founded” to “founded” rate for families with screened-in CPS reports.
  • Middle managers and supervisors do not have permission to scale back policy and procedural requirements in response to overwhelming workload demands. For example, CPS caseworkers in units with unfilled positions are unlikely to have the discretion to interview only the alleged child victim in a CPS report, rather than all children in the family, or quickly close a case after a single home visit without completing assessment tools. Practice standards in overwhelmed units and offices steadily erode and sometimes collapse, as caseworkers decide on their own how, when, and where to ignore policy requirements. I recently attended a child welfare meeting in a community in another state where caseworkers routinely failed to submit timely court reports, or attend six-month hearings for children in foster care, without disciplinary consequences. A few caseworkers may resort to fraudulent recording to “look good at the expense of being good,” to quote Jonathan Shay in “Odysseus in America.”
  • Caseworkers and supervisors are viewed as tools to deliver standardized practice frameworks; public agencies steadily work to limit caseworker discretion and initiative to the maximum extent possible. Agencies attempt to ground (or “dumb down”) their assessment and decision practices through use of assessment tools or practice frameworks claimed to be evidence based. In practice, these tools are rarely used as envisioned by developers, and have far less effect on caseworkers’ decision making than often assumed by judges, advocates and scholars. Caseworkers may be evaluated regarding their compliance with agency policies and procedures, not the quality of engagement with family members, other professionals and foster parents and not based on outcomes other than ones embodied in performance indicators.
  • The virtual world of documentation is more real to managers than what actually occurred in caseworkers’ contacts with parents, children and foster parents. Some managers even go so far as to state the principle that “if it’s not documented, it didn’t happen,” a strange bureaucratic world view.
  • Consistency of practice is more important than local flexibility, to the point that in some child welfare systems consistency of practice is an end in itself. In the view of many child welfare managers and directors, it’s more important to achieve consistent service delivery than to have offices that stand out for developing innovative practices.
  • Critical feedback regarding agency initiatives is viewed as an irritant that interferes with implementation, unless a top manager asks for feedback from caseworkers and supervisors, which rarely occurs. The relationship of agency leadership and an employees’ union is a source of tension, which may be responded to with open disdain for employees’ recommendations, much less their demands.

During recent years, it has become common in many states (including Washington) to require caseworkers, with the support of a security guard, to supervise hotel and/or office placements of behaviorally troubled youth, a practice that has led to numerous assaults of child welfare staff, including a few assaults that caused serious injuries. The promises of child welfare directors to eliminate hotel placements have proven to be empty as policymakers have resisted large new investments in residential care or professional foster care.

In many (but not all) states and large counties, child welfare agencies have never been staffed to meet reasonable workload standards. In a few states, workload pressures have been so extreme that hundreds or thousands of screened in CPS reports have not been investigated for months, and caseworkers and supervisors have lost touch with the distinction between open and closed cases.

In most states public agencies have been staffed without reliance on workload standards, even when workload studies have demonstrated what these standards ought to be. The indifference to workload standards is a main reason (but not the only one) for the child welfare workforce crisis nationally.

These practices, taken as a whole and pursued over years or decades, have made child welfare agencies intolerable places to work; and have led to negative word of mouth from experienced staff to young persons of their acquaintance who are considering a social work career. Negative word of mouth from experienced child welfare staff undermines recruitment and retention initiatives. When veteran child welfare staff warn their friends, family members and less experienced peers against seeking or sticking with child welfare employment, it becomes difficult to maintain a competent workforce. This same dynamic has undermined foster parent recruitment campaigns across the U.S., i.e., when experienced foster parents discourage friends and acquaintances from seeking to become licensed foster parents, it is next to impossible to increase the number of foster homes in a jurisdiction.

Reversing a dysfunctional managerial paradigm

Even child welfare directors may feel powerless to change bureaucratic practices that afflict their agencies. Caseworkers and supervisors often persistently lobby top managers for additional staff and oppose (often to no avail) additions to policy and procedural manuals. For the most part, in my experience caseworkers and supervisors attempt to accommodate bureaucratic requirements – even unreasonable ones – to the extent possible and find “work arounds” when this is not possible. However, what is usually lacking at all levels is a concerted effort to (a) increase discretion of line units to manage their work in response to staffing shortages, or lack of services; (b) support and reward initiative at the unit, office level and community to improve practice; (c) develop structures and practices that give caseworkers and supervisors more influence in policy development; (d) stop the misuse of metrics in evaluating the performance of units and offices; and (e) invest in the professional development of staff through funding of certification programs in substance abuse, mental health, domestic violence, early childhood development, cultural competence, etc. and by giving experienced staff greater discretion in how they do their work.
Child welfare staff are understandably reluctant to resist bureaucratic frameworks in a way that will draw negative attention of managers above them to themselves. However, child welfare staff who want to develop their professional abilities and become effective in their work cannot allow a dysfunctional bureaucracy to suppress their capacity for initiative, creative responses to challenge, critical thinking, and truth telling. Experienced staff at all levels who do not find ways of resisting a bureaucratic framework designed to stifle their voices and professional development may survive and even be promoted, but they will not thrive as self-respecting professionals.

Workforce development programs are too limited

One way of making employees physically sick is to give them challenging (and sometimes overwhelming) responsibilities but very little control over how they do the work. A lot of responsibility with little autonomy is a formula for demoralizing a workforce and undermining professional growth.
It is not enough for workforce development programs to emphasize maintaining work/life balance and developing cohesive work units, as important as these themes are in supporting the child welfare workforce. In addition, there needs to be an emphasis on assisting staff at all levels to increase their influence (not power or authority) at the unit, office and community level. Newly hired caseworkers should be encouraged to intentionally seek influence in their unit, office and community by:

  • Being reliable and conscientious;
  • Being accessible and responding to all calls and emails within 24 hours, not counting weekends or holidays;
  • Helping co-workers when asked and asking for help as needed;
  • Helping community professionals to understand how to access agency resources and supervisors and managers as needed;
  • Joining with like-minded others in the child welfare agency and community to develop projects, grant applications, etc.;
  • Developing an area of specialized expertise;
  • Finding ways to utilize bureaucratic rules to get things done; and
  • Telling the truth to supervisors and managers when it counts and in a civil manner they can hear.

The intent of caseworkers and supervisors to stay or leave child welfare employment is strongly associated with the experience of being effective or ineffective in their job, which is determined to a large extent by their influence in the unit, office and community. Workforce development programs should train to guidelines for increasing influence, both within agencies and in the community. ©

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

Past Sounding Boards can be found at
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