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Changing the Culture of the Workplace

Published: January 29, 2003
Child and Family Services Reviews
, Publications related to the CFSRs

This is a historical document. Use for research and reference purposes only.

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Closing Plenary Session - Annual Meeting of States and Tribes

(Comments by Jerry Milner)

We asked for this session on changing the culture of the workplace, since it is our belief that achieving true systemic change means changing the fundamental ways in which we do our business with children and families and with other agencies and groups who serve those same children and families. I'd like to spend a few minutes talking about the meaning of the entire concept of changing the culture of the workplace, and then each of our panelists will shed further light on how that can be accomplished.

We have much to learn from the experiences of some of the States here today that have been engaged in statewide systemic reforms for several years. Many of these States are pursuing those reforms pursuant to settlement agreements and consent decrees that focus on the practice issues that will actually affect the outcomes for children and families. Other States are attempting to comply with settlement agreements and consent decrees that are so grounded in procedural requirements that they offer little hope of changing outcomes. We've reviewed both kinds of situations over the past two years.

Whether change is being pursued in a State as a result of a lawsuit or of enlightened leadership in the State, there are certain fundamental truths about change that we must consider and follow if we are to see the kind of results that we've spent most of this meeting discussing. We must start out with the premise that change of the magnitude that we are seeking will not be easy, nor will it be accomplished within the scope of a two-year program improvement plan (PIP), although it should begin there. States cannot simply change their policies, adopt a few new forms, and put a quality assurance system in place and think they have accomplished systemic change.

Any State that embarks on a course of systemic change must first define its mission and vision. Before any child welfare agency can begin to pursue systemic change, it must first know where it is going. It must have a vision of what the system will look like when it is in place. It must have a set of guiding principles that are operationalized in all aspects of the work that occurs within the agency. And, it must have a means of knowing when it is being true to those principles and when it is not. We have tried to provide a conceptual framework for the things we evaluate in the CFSR. We have, in effect, created a vision of what the systems we review should look like. Those principles are:

  • Family-centered practice. We have included measures in the CFSR that further define family-centered practice, including issues such as family assessments, engaging families in case planning activities, examining safety issues within the entire family, working with fathers as well as mothers, encouraging the use of family-based placements rather than institutional placements and temporary shelters, focusing on the broad and underlying issues that affect safety, permanency, and well-being rather than just the presenting factors, and others.
  • Community-based services. We have tried to operationalize this principle by evaluating States on issues such as proximity of foster care placements to the families and communities from which children come, access to services, providing services to families in their own homes, and other indicators.
  • Individualizing services to children and families. We have attempted to reinforce this principle by looking specifically how well we assess the needs of individual family members and provide the appropriate services based on those assessments, at how well the service array lends itself to individualizing services, and other indicators.
  • Strengthening the capacity of parents to provide for their children's needs. This principle runs through many of the indicators we have included in the review, such as engaging parents in making decisions about their goals, needs, and plans; encouraging caseworker visits with parents; a special focus on fathers and paternal relatives in addition to mothers and maternal relatives; preserving the relationships that children have with their families while they are in foster, and other indicators.

It is far too easy to say simply that the mission of an agency is to protect children, help them achieve permanency, and assure their well-being, because that can mean too many things in the day to day work that occurs with children and families. For example, in one State there were posters of the agency's mission posted prominently in all the offices, attesting to the agency's mission of supporting families to care for their children. In fact, in our review, we found that neither the agency's policies nor its practice supported caseworkers' contacts with parents on a frequent basis and did not encourage the family's involvement in case planning activities or in decision-making about the family's future. How then, we have to wonder, did the agency expect that its 'mission' would ever be realized?

We can hold child safety as a guiding principle, and protect children by picking them all up and putting them in foster care, but is that what kind of practice we are trying to achieve? We can hold permanency as a guiding principle, and achieve it by placing children wholesale in institutions that will keep them until they emancipate, or by placing children out of their family and cultural contexts, but is that the kind of permanency we are striving to achieve? Agencies must take the principles they adopt as their mission to the next level in terms of how they translate into the day to day practices in the field, and must set up systems within the State to assure that those practices are reinforced at every level.

The second area that States must address in pursuing cultural change within State child welfare agencies is changing the day to day practice of caseworkers in the field. The bottom line is that all the systemic changes an agency may implement will mean nothing if front-line practice does not change. That must be the focus and the goal.

Changing practice does not occur simply because the agency administrator directs that it will change, or because we institute new policies that direct change. It can only change, and remain changed, when staff believe that they are doing the right things, that their practices are the right ones, and that takes us directly to the values and beliefs of the staff who do the work. For example, if staff believe that parents are the adversary, they will react to them that way, and parents will be more likely to reciprocate with similar responses to the caseworkers and the agency. On the other hand, if staff believe that parents are essential to the well-being of their children and that they care about their children, and convey those beliefs to parents in their interactions, parents will be more likely to respond likewise.

Training of staff in these important concepts is an essential first step, but the mistake that some agencies make is stopping after the training. We sometimes see agencies train staff in a new way of doing business without first training their supervisors, or training only new staff and not training the existing staff whose need to refocus their practice is probably even more critical than those new staff coming into the agency. We also frequently see agencies adopt training curricula for foster and adoptive parents that emphasize partnerships with the agency and having a voice in decisions about the children they care for, and then neglect to train the staff to behave similarly. Many foster families have shared their frustration with us about being prepared to work collaboratively with agencies only to be shut out or ignored when issues arise.

Staff must not only be trained, but new behaviors and new practices must be reinforced, primarily from front-line supervisors, but also by their peers within the agency, by the other agencies with whom they interact, and by the administration's expectations of them in terms of performance.

The third area where agencies must focus attention in changing the culture of the agency is in building an infrastructure that supports changed practice. It is not enough to train and reinforce new practices. The child welfare system must be able to support changing practice, which if often one of the most difficult undertakings. For example, we accomplish very little if we train and support staff to assess the needs of the children and families with whom they are working and to identify the correct mix of individualized services, if all the agency's service funds are tied up in big contracts or a pre-established menu of services. In effect, we may only highlight the agency's inability to respond in an individualized manner if we engage a family and determine that it needs certain unique services, but we can only offer weekly mental health counseling and parenting classes, or a six-week wait to get into substance abuse treatment.

The agency's funding and infrastructure must permit staff at the front line to act on the information they gather through improved practice, especially in having the flexibility to purchase the services when and where they are needed. However, even flexing our service dollars will not lead to improvements if service providers are not diverse enough in the services they provide to respond to identified needs. If we have the flexibility to buy services locally when and where they are needed on a family-specific basis, but we can only buy residential care, more mental health counseling, or more parenting classes, we're really not a lot better off.

An essential part of changing practice involves the full partnership of those outside the doors of the child welfare agency on whom we are dependent to serve children and families effectively - service providers in particular. In moving into this aspect of systemic change, agencies should know that diversifying the service array in a State is a very complex undertaking. Service providers in all States have set up their businesses to support the existing practice in the State, and changing that status quo means serious changes for service providers. For example, moving toward more family-based placements for children and away from unnecessary residential care, or away from temporary shelter care, is a move toward changing not only the culture of the child welfare agency, but the culture of the providers who must work with the agency in order to achieve meaningful change.

Finally, a State that is pursuing cultural change must build its capacity for quality assurance. There must be an ongoing quality assurance process that measures the things that are important, that is, what happens to children and families as a result of the agency's involvement with them. If an agency attempts to change practice, yet continues to evaluate staff and local agencies only on procedural compliance, and not on the outcomes and the practices that it is trying to support, it will send the clear message that practice is not important enough to monitor or to be used as a basis of evaluating performance.

We are extremely pleased that so many States are adopting qualitative case reviews similar to the CFSR as part of their ongoing QA in the States, but they must first have something to measure. And, agencies must use the information generated by their QA systems to constantly gauge their performance. Achieving systemic change is only part of the task. We must be equally diligent about sustaining it over time. In order to sustain improved practice, we must constantly monitor it, support it, reinforce it, know when we have taken a step backwards and when to re-group.

It is a fact that every State will need to work on either achieving or sustaining systemic change through their program improvement plans. From the results of the first 32 reviews, we know that all States will need to address basic case planning issues, engagement of families in that process, improving work with fathers, achieving permanency for children in foster care more appropriately and more timely, and providing a more accessible array of services especially in areas such as mental health and substance abuse. Attempting to address only one of these areas will not work, since we work in an interrelated system, where changes or the lack of change in one part has a direct effect on the other parts. We can only achieve the results we are seeking by directing our efforts at the system as a whole.

States have an incredible opportunity to weave the changes that they must make into a bigger plan that will lead them and the partners with whom they must work to accomplish change, in a new direction that will support improved outcomes for children and families from now on. Our measure of success in this effort should be nothing less than the knowledge that the fundamental experience of children and families with your agencies has improved and is leading to better outcomes in their lives.

Thank you very much.

This is a historical document. Use for research and reference purposes only.
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Last Reviewed: June 17, 2015