Written by Chuck Price, Owner, CEO & Consultant @ Blue Collar Consulting, LLC
Originally published in the Children's Bureau Express, December 2020, Vol. 21, No.9
Real change—the shift toward prevention within child welfare practice—is under way. The vision and transformation efforts demonstrated by the Children's Bureau have been crucial to changemakers at the local level. The support and assurance of knowing that the federal agency is sharing the sentiments and heading in the same direction has allowed leaders like myself to become even more relentless and courageous with our own systems transformations.
For the past 8 years, I was a director of a county health and human services department in rural Wisconsin and led the implementation and integration of a trauma-informed approach to health and human services. There was a heavy concentration on improving, changing, and transforming child welfare practice, including concepts such as "no child will be placed with a stranger," alternative-response models for initial assessments, and moving away from a "gotcha!" system and instead focusing on building relationships with families. The current system continues to use words like "investigate," "investigation," and "substantiation"—a system of shame and blame. We were committed to a compassionate, empathetic, and healing-based system.
Knowing that you cannot change one system without changing the whole department, we educated all our staff—from receptionist to myself as director—about trauma-informed care and adverse childhood experiences. We developed principles based on trauma-informed care and vision/value statements. We used these pieces for internal decision-making and recruiting staff dedicated to these ideals. The results showed marked improvement in the recruitment and retention of staff, and we assembled a healthy and dedicated staff ready to change the whole system. We were gaining recognition for our successes, such as 13 months with zero children in residential placement.
The changes we were making, along with a trauma-informed lens securely in place across the department, put us on a path to bigger and bolder goals—to change the child welfare system. Why change the child welfare system? In most cases, the current system invokes more harm than good when we intervene with families as currently prescribed. The data suggest that we would be better off not responding at all. Knowing that a prevention-based, relationship-based, and compassion-based model would be more effective, we sought every opportunity to find changemakers and learn from them.
What we learned is that people are comfortable hearing about what you want to do. This support is always on a surface level and, in some cases, include thoughts that true change to support families will never happen. For example, when you pitch your ideas, people will nicely reply, "That sounds great! Good luck to you." As you begin your change process, I urge you to pay attention to those same people and really evoke change. The system would much prefer status quo or staying comfortable. When we stay comfortable, families lose. How could this possibly be? I mean, people keep saying "the system is broken" right? Would not everyone, then, want the system to change to help children and families and to support them and prevent deep-end system intervention? I certainly had this thought.
Here's the thing though, the system isn't broken; the system is doing exactly what it was designed to do. We have set up programming, such as residential treatment centers, group homes, treatment foster homes, and foster care in general, that have all now become an industry. The industry needs to eat, right? The industry relies on the exact processes that are in place—removing children from their families. So, the radical transformation needed is the dismantling of an enormous industry that has been in place for decades.
When the changes move from talk to action and begin to impact other systems, be ready because they will come for you. This is advice close colleagues and mentors gave me as our momentum was growing. Who are "they"? The answer might be different depending on your situation and relationships. The "they" could be your county board, city council, human resource department, local sheriff, local police chiefs, local school administrators, or district attorney—anyone who sees and feels that you are creeping out of your lane and affecting theirs. That is who is going to come for you: people and systems who will not be concerned about successful outcomes or those who may have a different philosophy on what defines successful outcomes or safety for children, families, or communities. Be ready for "secret" meetings to take place about you. Be ready for closed-session meetings, and be ready to be outnumbered in these meetings. Be ready for the full effects.
Be relentless anyway of the oppression of the system. The system does not want to change its ways; it just wants you to fall in line.
Families need us to be strong, unwavering, and relentless. They need us to challenge the system. The child welfare system as it currently stands is designed to be punitive in nature. It is designed to investigate, make decisions, and then "do things" to families. It is not designed for authentic engagement that allows for true partnership. In the end, it may have been my peril, but I was not going to compromise with systems. I was not willing to place children unnecessarily out of their homes, and I was not willing to bend rules or laws for system partners to get the results they were looking for, which was essentially giving up on a family or a child to make the other systems feel better. That was not going to happen. Which family or kiddo gets to experience the status quo system? Which gets the full benefit of a relationship-based system?
There is inherent risk in this change work, and it can come with great personal cost. I urge you to think about what it is costing families, what it is costing generations and the health of our communities. Do not be afraid to step into the arena and stand for what is right. They will come for you; be relentless anyway.