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Measuring Public Value:


Breaking with the past, the PCSAO
systematically pursued a new course. The public was asked to speak for itself,
to tell the child protection system what it values, to tell child protection
agencies what it expects.


The PCSAO
conducted focus-group-based research, asking the public to tell the PCSAO what
it thinks and what it expects. Participants in the study were first asked to
share their attitudes toward and perceptions of child abuse and neglect. They
were then asked to share their perceptions and expectations for public child
protection agencies.


The
research was divided into two phases. During the first phase, a uniform
moderator’s guide was developed. The guide was used in each focus group to
assure inter-group consistency and to guide the discussion.


Focus group participants were recruited
geographically from the general public. Potential participants who were either
employed in child protection agencies or had some other current involvement
with the child protection system were excluded. This was done to avoid the
discussions being influenced by individuals who might be seen by other
participants as having special expertise or inside knowledge. The intent of the
study was to capture the ideas and views of the general public, not simply
those of people with first-hand experience with the system.


Study participants were representative of the
age, gender, geography, and cultural make-up of the specific counties where the
focus groups were held. They were each paid a stipend to participate in the research.
In part, this was intended to reimburse transportation and child care expenses.


Ohio is a very diverse state, with eighty-eight
counties ranging from urban to rural. There are large metropolitan centers
including Cleveland, Columbus,
Akron, Toledo, Dayton, and Cincinnati.
Even with these urban areas, agriculture remains the number one industry of the
state. Twenty-nine counties, stretching from the eastern part of the state
along the Ohio River southward to Cincinnati,
are designated as Appalachian. Recognizing the state-wide diversity, the
research hypothesized that there would be significant regional variations in
participant attitudes and perceptions.


Eight focus groups were required to assure
fair representation of Ohio‘s
diverse public. Group meetings were held in Columbus,
Cincinnati, Cleveland,
the farming belt of northwestern Ohio,
rapidly growing counties adjacent to metropolitan centers, and locations
convenient for participants selected from the Appalachian counties.


What does the public value? What are the
public’s perceptions and expectations? Here is what they told the researchers.


There are no regional differences in what the
public values, in what it perceives and expects. To the contrary, people
throughout Ohio
hold very strong and consistent views. When the issue is child abuse, the
public speaks with a single voice. (As you will see in the first addendum to
this chapter, this consistency is also present across the United States
and is likely the same world-wide.)


The public does not make a clear distinction
between child protection and the provision of financial aid and services to
needy families. Further, both are perceived as government-run and, as such,
garner little to no public confidence.


The public is concerned that government could
dictate the manner in which they discipline their children and could intervene
into the institution of the family based upon spurious reports. Specifically,
they are concerned that child protection agencies may intrude inappropriately
into families, with inadequate consideration for the rights of parents.


Concurrently, the most important child
protection issue is the strongly held belief that all children should be safe.
Comments like, “You know abuse when you see it,” were common among
focus group participants. The public also feels that people who do actually
abuse children should be dealt with harshly.


The public has many child-protection-related
questions and concerns. They expect better information and specific answers.
This will, they believe, enable them to more capably evaluate the performance
of the child protection system.


In response
to the expressed information needs and the demand for specific answers, the
study was expanded. Four additional focus groups were held for this part of the
research, with appropriate attention to geographic and cultural representation.
Certainly, the public is entitled to the information they expect as well as to
complete and accurate answers to their questions. Pursuing this public
entitlement, the researchers developed a process for focus group participants
to rank, in order of importance, the issues raised in the first part of the
study. In rank-order, the priority issues are these:


·      
The
safety of children is the most important child protection issue for the public.


·      
Child
protection agencies should maintain children within their families whenever
possible, so long as the children are safe.


·      
Whenever
possible and safe, agencies should place children with other relatives, when
the children cannot remain with their birth families.


·      
The
public is willing to increase taxes to increase the safety of children.


The public does, however, expect the child
protection agency to fully account for the money currently available to it.
Additionally, the agency is expected to be explicit and forthcoming about its
plans for any additional tax money it may receive.


·      
The
public expects members of the Children’s Safety Net to cooperate and
collaborate.


The shared commitment must be to the safety
of children and to the stability of families. Individual member interests and
dedicated funding streams mean nothing to the public. It is the public’s tax
dollars being spent, whether local, state, or federal. Whatever the source or
fund designation, the public’s expectation is that all programs and services
will be coordinated and unduplicated. What’s more, they expect all
tax-supported activities to reflect their central value: increasing child
safety. Beyond that, the stability of families is to also be supported and
nurtured, whenever possible and appropriate.


·      
The
public believes that child protection agency social workers are overworked,
underpaid, and inadequately supported in their efforts to increase child
safety.


·      
The
public believes that most foster parents are “in it for the money.”





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