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Toward Reliance On Professional Judgment

I have been focusing on the new and evolving child
protection paradigm. If the new paradigm is to serve the best interests of
abused and neglected children, it must be standards driven and best practice
based, reflecting carefully conceived and well considered guiding principles
that appropriately inform child protection practice. The evolving paradigm is
transitioning from reliance on rules and procedures to emphasis on outcomes and
continuous invention of innovative and creative strategies for and approaches
to our work with children and families.

The need is to continue that transition to incorporate
consensus based standards and verified best practices directing all child
protection interventions. The paradigm additionally needs to transition from
reliance on bureaucratic structures to worker empowerment and in turn to
dependence on professional judgment and expertise. Let’s consider each of these
three transitional elements.

I am sure we are all familiar with the traditional bureaucracy
model for organizations and for organizing programs and services. The typical
structure is vertically organized, with power, authority, direction, and
planning emanating from the top of the familiar pyramid and spreading outward
and down. The requirements and directives are passed down in the form of procedures
and rules to be faithfully followed at each descending level. As the laws,
policies, and directives descend, additional, specific procedures and rules are
added in order to more exactly prescribe the actions and behavior expected of
people at each lower level. Their individual performance is then evaluated in
terms of how completely they know and follow the array of procedures and rules
associated with their positions in the bureaucracy. At the level of service to
people, the structure is procedure and rules driven.

An underlying problem here is child protection is not a
bureaucracy in any traditional sense. One has to focus fairly locally to find
any single structure that functions in a traditional bureaucratic manner. What
we find instead is a loosely organized aggregation of public and private
entities, programs, and services functioning collectively and more or less
coherently to protect abused and neglected children. The existing procedures
and rules are understood and followed unevenly and inconsistently, The people
delivering the prescribed services reflect wide variability in terms of
qualifications and approach, and the actions and behavior expected when the
laws and policies at the top of the presumed bureaucratic structure began their
descent toward implementation have only a general relationship to what actually
happens in the field.

It likely comes as no surprise to those in the field who are doing the
difficult work of child protection to have me point out empowerment is not a
new idea. Child protection workers have been largely empowered to do as they
think best for many years. Certainly they mostly conform their actions and
behavior to the myriad of procedures and rules associated with their positions.
They are good bureaucratic participants. At the same time, though, the
strategies, approaches, choices, and decisions they make for and about children
and families on a daily basis are mostly a function of their own counsel. This
includes how they choose to apply specific procedures and rules within specific
situations and circumstances.

The shift to an outcomes orientation for judging the
effectiveness of their actions and behavior is, in part, an acknowledgement of
existing worker empowerment. Reliance on compliance with procedures and rules
has clearly not been adequate. Workers have also used continuous invention for
a very long time. Although they may usually do what they do in the same ways
they have in the past, new situations and unexpected challenges require
creativity and innovation. Workers invent new and better ways to accomplish
what they are committed to accomplishing with children and families. They
proceed on an empowered basis simply because they do not have a prescribed path
that will get their clients where they need to go. Within the bureaucratic
mind-set, we proceed as if this were not the case but it is.

Within the new child protection paradigm, reliance on outcomes
shifts to acceptance of consensus based standards whereby practice is judged to
succeed or fail. In this paradigm, simply doing better is not acceptable. Child
protection workers are expected to succeed. Similarly, inventing strategies and
approaches by individual workers is not adequate practice. Making it up as we
go along is unacceptable. Although in the current practice environment,
continuous invention is necessary, in the new child protection paradigm,
workers will be able to rely on best practice methods and approaches known to
conform to accepted standards.

The professional judgments of child protection workers
will be fully informed by child protection’s underlying guiding principles and
reliant on generally accepted standards and known best practice. At that
practice level, bureaucratically generated laws and policies, procedures and
rules will be largely unnecessary and mostly counterproductive. Child
protection will then be the responsibility of extensively educated, highly
trained professionals who practice based on clear guiding principles informing
consensus based standards and known best practice. The people assuring safety,
permanence, and ongoing well being for abused and neglected children will be as
qualified as those who safeguard our health or fly the plains that transport us
around the world. The knowledge, judgment, and expertise required are no less
for those who we hold responsible for our children.

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