Children's Voice September/October 2007

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Executive Directions

The word innovation jumped out at me in the article "Taking a Team Approach" in this issue of Children's Voice. I researched the definition for the word and was surprised to learn that it simply means "the act of introducing something new," namely, starting something for the first time.

In the article, we learn how the Massachusetts Department of Social Services is using teams of caseworkers to better serve children and families and to improve the overall work environment. It's such a simple concept, but then so was the invention of the wheel.

I think we are sometimes overwhelmed by the thought of innovation. We tend to feel it has to be some spectacular new way of working, when in many respects it's simply a more efficient way of working. For those working in the child welfare system, it's a better way of addressing the needs of children and families.

This country follows a school of thought that innovation is an essential factor in our ability to be competitive in the global economy. In fact, it's this thinking that resulted in a proclamation issued by the National Governors Association declaring a week last May as Innovation America week. Our governors recognize the need for tangible, innovative solutions to enhance the economic capacity of states and the nation as a whole.

So too does the private sector, where we hear about innovation all the time. Apple's introduction of the iPod and other technological advances, for instance, put it at the top of the list of groundbreaking innovative practices for the past several years.

The tremendous increase in the scope and speed of change in this country makes it necessary for all of us to continue to find ways to do things better. And if ever there were a concern that calls for change, it is the well-being of the children and families we serve every day. Drastically declining resources, together with dramatic changes in the circumstances and complexities of the families and children we are serving, means innovation isn't just nice, it's a necessity.

Innovation isn't new to child welfare. In fact, it has become the new buzzword. But innovation is much more than just a trendy phrase. Clearly, we have done much for the betterment of children and families, but we must continually adapt our capabilities according to the call of new challenges. When it comes to innovation in child welfare, it must be child- and family-focused and outcome driven. It must involve a laser-like focus on children and families, rather than on agencies or systems, and it must be held accountable for meaningful outcomes.

All of this is easier said than done, of course. Innovation is hard to achieve, and even more exacting to sustain, because of the difficulty of purging old behaviors, overcoming resistance to change, divesting the one-size-fits-all mentality that is compounded by the task of thinking outside the box, the desire for quick fixes, and frequent turnover in leadership. But many of CWLA's members have overcome these challenges, and with funding and support from Casey Family Programs, CWLA is in the process of developing a program for recognizing their innovative work.

I strongly believe CWLA has an important role to play as a champion for innovation in the child welfare system. First and foremost, we need to exemplify innovation in the way we work, and we need to increase our capacity to identify areas where innovation constitutes progressive improvements in the quality of life for children and families.

To do so, we need to be able to foster, identify, package, and facilitate the sharing of innovation. Most importantly, we need to make sure a mechanism exists for measuring the difference innovation has made in the life of the child and family. Articulating, measuring, and reporting improvements is one of the best ways to ensure we sustain innovation.

In the past, we have implemented innovations as additions to the existing child welfare system, rather than attempting to change child welfare at the system level. For true reform and renewal to take place, systemic change through innovation is essential. To that end, CWLA aims to position itself as the hub of the most innovative system of services for children and families nationwide.

Christine James-Brown


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