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Why Child Welfare Agencies Should Stop Doing the Best They Can

by Jeff Edwards 1 min read

For those who have spent any length of time serving in America’s thinly stretched child welfare system, they are well aware that “doing the best they can” comes up short on a far too frequent basis.

Certainly, there are success stories in every state agency and private provider that spur every worker or therapist to give it their very best just one more time. As with any industry, child welfare recruits a myriad of employees with varying motivations. Yet, by and large, you find people who genuinely care about the welfare of our most vulnerable citizens. 

The Difference of a Day in Foster Care

First and foremost, let’s set the stage for those frontline workers doing the best they can right now. You use every tool at your disposal, care greatly about the kids you serve, and the work follows you home more often than not. A national call for child welfare agencies to stop doing the best they can is also a call to equip you with everything you need to do the job well. The right tool backed by the evidence in your hands is a powerful agent of change in this nation. Agency leaders, policy makers, and decision makers must stop settling for the best that they can do on your behalf. 

If you were to survey frontline foster care and adoption workers throughout this nation on how many foster homes they needed to care for the number of children in the child welfare system, the answer would be a unanimous “more.” Follow that question by asking when you need them and the answer would likely be a unanimous “yesterday.” In many cases, the deficiency is not in the number of foster homes, but in the quality of foster homes and who they are willing to take. 

There is rarely a shortage of homes looking to love and serve a newborn infant or neglected toddler. Their angry 15-year-old sibling is a much harder placement. When a sibling group of 5 enters the child welfare system, the priority is to keep them together. The only problem is finding a home that has room for 5 children is difficult. 

Remarkably, there are homes that are willing to take such difficult and numerous placements, but they seem to always be in the pipeline. They are in the recruiting process or nearly finished with their homestudy and agency workers know with certitude that they will be an amazing parent to these children. Yet, when a child comes into care, they need the right placement to be ready today and not next week when the foster parent trainer returns from their much needed vacation. 

The Best Means Using the Best Evidence

Everyone is doing the best they can to get these families ready in time, but coming up a little slow or a little late in America’s child welfare system can have cascading consequences for children. One wrong placement turns into another, then another, then another, and months or years can go by before siblings are ever reunited under the same roof. 

Doing the best one can wouldn’t be so tragic if there were not agencies who have followed the evidence, unlocked the funding, and dedicated themselves to performance based measures. There are enough indicators and enough agencies leading the way that following the trail of evidence seems morally responsible given what is at stake. 

Emanating out of Massachusetts General Hospital, Think:Kids is an organization that takes an evidenced based collaborative problem solving approach to working with challenging kids. While they have undoubtedly done the best they could, they promote the outcomes over the effort. 

Following the evidence, their approach leads to an 86% average reduction in physical restraints, a 74% reduction in the use of seclusion and 71% fewer self inflicted injuries in youth. Opening an “old school” orphanage in the face of such overwhelming data would almost seem criminal. Yet, we have no doubt that even the founders of orphanages of the past were indeed doing the best they could. 

An Ethical Call to Measure the Outcomes over the Effort

Organizations like the Annie E.Casey Foundation have stepped up nationally to do the very hard work and research that is perhaps not possible for every underfunded agency or private provider. Mobile and web-based software solution Casebook, was inspired by the notion that our child welfare system, given what is at stake, should have software at least as good as a modern social media company.  

Anything less might be the best some agencies can do, but perhaps it is time for child welfare agencies across America to stop doing the best they can. The evidence also shows us that when you equip passionate workers with the right tools that are supported by the evidence, they will make lasting change in the lives of our nation’s most vulnerable youth. The evidence exists as do the passionate workers ready to do their best. 

They need but visionary leaders and influencers to follow the evidence and no longer be satisfied with the effort over the outcomes. Outcomes over effort is how NASA put a man on the moon and it’s how our nation’s child welfare system will step up to meet the needs of those who need us most.


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Jeff Edwards
Jeff Edwards spent nearly 14 years in the nonprofit sector working in the child welfare services sector.