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Can Social Equity and Service Contracting Co-Exist with Child Welfare?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Dwight Vick
June 11, 2020 

On May 13th, Drs. Mary Guy and Sean McCandless discussed their latest book, Achieving Social Equity: From Problems to Solutions on ASPA’s webinar, Book Talk.  

Guy’s and McCandless’ book forces us, as public administrators, to escape our conference comfort zone. There, we discuss essential but publicly noncontroversial topics like budgeting or organizational theory or contracting and procurement. Achieving Social Equity goes beyond the popular social justice topics—race, LGBTQ, immigration, and environment—and requires all public administrators to apply access, process, quality and outcomes to often ignored but equally important issues impacting First Nations, the homeless, persons who rely upon public transportation and rulemaking. For me, one chapter personally and professionally stands out; child welfare, “Child Welfare as a Social Equity Issue” by Dr. Ida Drury.

My wife and I are adoptive parents and were foster parents. We know first-hand the impact that child abuse and neglect have on a child’s life. We know first-hand how the child welfare system is often inequitable for children of color and those from poor families. We have seen the horrors that caseworkers face because we faced them. We also experienced the horrors child welfare services have caused children, their foster families, and their adopted ones. I saw them as an employee.

Other foster parents like us often describe child welfare as a broken system, an example of bureaucratic failure.

William Spanger Peirce’s book, Bureaucratic Failure and Public Expenditures (2013), defines the term “bureaucratic failure” as one that occurs when a bureaucracy does not achieve its legislative objectives or when the agency’s design, financing or its implementation by administrators do not align with legislation. Child welfare policy widely differs in each state, but states may face similar challenges like working with law enforcement, conducting investigations, dealing with a judicial system that questions their work, being forced to rely upon their own beliefs to make decisions rather than policy so as not to be ostracized by colleagues, dealing with families for generations, etc. while working through the 5 child welfare stages outlined by Drury.

The stages are: referral, screening, assessment, removal and permanency. A child or parent can be referred to the agency. Screenings and assessments are conducted by a caseworker who determines if the allegations are true or false and if the child needs to be removed from the home, parental needs, or if permanent separation is required. The referral, screening, and assessment can occur over time or within minutes of the initial contact. But the caseworker, the street-level bureaucrat, is key in deciding whether the case goes forward and what actions should be taken. But the caseworker is often not supported.

The turnover rate among child welfare caseworkers is high. The situations they face overwhelm them. The violence against children, particularly by family members, often sickens caseworkers. Those who remain with the agency grow jaded. Caseworkers differ amongst themselves about the best approach to work with a family or child. Given one’s reliance upon one’s personal code of ethics, caseworkers have to choose between agreeing with their jaded colleagues who often say;

“I sell babies.”

“All of the kids experience trauma. We don’t care about trauma.”

“These are throwaway kids. Who cares if they die?”

“The state requires us to approve all applicants even if we have concerns.”

“I’ve had three generations of that family. They just move around to keep from getting caught.”

 “The foster family brought the foster child’s problems on themselves and they should be punished for it.”

Caseworkers could falsely accuse families of child abuse or face workplace harassment. I know. I worked there and left for those reasons.

Families learn and eventually stop fostering children. We did.

In the end, children who are “in the system” pay the highest price. Foster children realize they may be aging out with no support, are at greater risk of going to jail or want to become parents just so, “Someone will love them.”

Because of the agency’s failure caused by internal and external forces, the state of Texas is transitioning most aspects of its child welfare services to a nonprofit agency to correct its failing system. Scheduled to be completed in some regions throughout the state in January, 2020, the transition has not occurred, creating the following questions;

“Is a lack of support now better than working with a jaded or inexperienced caseworker?”

 “Will the same situation continue if the nonprofit hires jaded employees?”

 “Could it lead to bureaucratic failure within the nonprofit?”

“Can social equity and service contracting coexist in child welfare?”

We focus much attention on cultural awareness among other public service groups like police and ignore child welfare agencies who deal with the aftermath. Drury recommends improved quality of service delivery, expanded and improved prevention programs and procedural changes. Achieving Social Equity sits alongside other social equity texts like Race and Social Equity by Dr. Susan Goodin and Living Legends and Full Legacy by Dr. G.L.A. Harris and my own book about substance abuse policy and practice. Guy and McCandliss’ book and ASPA take us, as public administrators, out of our comfort zone.


Author: Dwight Vick, Ph.D. is a 28-year-long ASPA member.  An adjunct professor, he owns D.A.V.E – Dwight A. Vick Enterprises, a consulting and grant writing business.

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