Generation Passed

A Baby Boomer reflects on what his generation has done for the field—and the challenges ahead for young leaders.

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As a Baby Boomer with more than 30 years in child welfare and youth development settings, I've begun thinking about what will happen when our time has passed. We of the generation wearing sensible shoes and Fred Rogers' sweaters have been managing things for some time. How well will we have prepared the next generation of child welfare leaders, and what can we tell them about what works and what to avoid? The policy and practice landscape of child welfare has improved in the last three decades, reflected in lower caseloads, enhanced diversion strategies, increased numbers of children achieving permanency, and expanded budgets for child protection programs. Still, our results remain inconsistent.

The perception of the Baby Boomer legacy in the broader society is mixed at best. A Zogby Interactive poll of 4,811 adults found that 42% of those polled thought our legacy would be consumerism and self-indulgence, while only 27% thought it would be changing values and ending a war. Some of the highest negative perceptions among those polled were people in our own generation. A disturbing 32% of those polled were split regarding their perceptions of Boomer legacy, with about half saying, "nothing at all" or "not sure." If we have made a positive difference, few people, including ourselves, appear to believe it.

How do these mixed opinions translate to our work in child welfare, and to our younger colleagues? Since no poll unique to the child welfare arena exists, we really do not know how we are perceived or what is expected of us as we transition. Still, we were entrusted with an affirmative responsibility to leave things in better shape than we found them. A post-Boomer colleague of mine, Virginia Pryor, Board Chair for Black Administrators in Child Welfare (BACW), recently reminded me of "the importance of having confidence in the next generation." She encouraged me to think about how we empower our younger peers and welcome their questions regarding what we have done and why we have done it.

Certain chronic challenges in our field, as well as our efforts to address them, provide a perspective on our legacy and our responsibility to leave an improved child welfare system behind us.

Caseload Size

One of our significant accomplishments has been our push to lower caseload ratios. These reductions are analogous to having Boomer icon Robert De Niro in a movie--no matter how poor the film, the insertion of that one actor provides a director with certainty that many people will go see the production. Similarly, lower caseloads should have allowed caseworkers to increase face time with families.

Unfortunately, in many jurisdictions, public agencies have replaced those high caseloads with new compliance standards and formulaic checklists encompassing all aspects of child welfare. Driven by lawsuits, a voracious press, and a watering down of the professional social work role via civil service standards, some agencies have filled the caseworker's day with multiple tasks, and subsequently inhibited the preponderance of critical thinking. In almost every state I have worked, program managers and state directors are crying out for staff who can integrate multiple facts and observations into a coherent family service plan. However, these same managers are forced to hire staff without the proper academic backgrounds and attempt to fill in the gaps of staff qualifications with actuarial tools that will predict risk.

In the same way that we were told computers and cell phones would free up our time to be more creative, we believed these tools would make us more effective and efficient. The reality is that these mandatory tasks have done little to improve the interaction with families. Several years ago I heard this referred to as social watching, not social working. Baby Boomer Sue Steib, a former state child welfare administrator now working for a major foundation, framed it another way for me. "We don't trust people to use the concepts and core beliefs of social work with discretion and flexibility," she said. She is right; successful interactions with families emerge from the tedious but rewarding task of relationship building.

Like any other productive enterprise, we need an environment that fosters creativity, exploration, and client-focused activity. No organization goes from good to great if its employees are mired simply in compliance-oriented assignments. I encourage our younger colleagues to optimize the likelihood for improved outcomes by continuously replenishing our service delivery models. Simply replacing one requirement for another has left us sitting on the plateau of mediocrity. Lower caseloads should be the gateway to enhanced critical thinking by caseworkers and supervisors rather than an opportunity to increase compliance tasks.

A Fidelity to Good Practice

In my opinion, family preservation, family-centered practice, family team meetings, systems of care, and so on are all just elements of what the profession traditionally called good practice. Each of these approaches has its own impressive quantitative and qualitative results, and each has supported our common goal of safely maintaining children in their own families and communities. However, the Baby Boomer generation has consistently elevated each of these in a way that reflects a belief in an ideology, or a "flavor of the month" mentality, complete with well-compensated champions and consultants. Perhaps our errors lie in our failure to connect these preferred practices to our core social work principles. We should caution the next generation of leaders that instead of isolating these types of practice developments as the next big thing, they should reaffirm them as a refinement of time-honored values.

Periodically, I've revisited the roots of social work to remind myself that we are a profession, just like medicine or law. The underlying basis for our work is clear, particularly in the National Association of Social Workers' preamble (see sidebar). Unlike medicine and law, however, we have not protected our profession by assuring compliance to strict theoretical and educational standards. Thus, all of these variations on good practice with families take on the patina of a remarkable new intervention. One of my colleagues analogized the recent emphasis on family engagement to a physician washing his hands prior to surgery, saying one shouldn't have to question or highlight something so basic.

This is not to deny the changing context in which we operate. Boomers were the first generation of child welfare professionals to use e-mail on the job, routinely apply data to our work, standardize assessments, and pilot the use of mobile, hand-held devices to support our work while on home visits. My friend June Cairns, a Baby Boomer and Director of Training and Staff Development at the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, points out that we have not fully integrated these developments into the broader scope of our social mandate. "Systems are more complex," she said. "We have not provided much training on applying the research to our work and to integrating all of this into our primary mission."

Family Recovery

Over the years, I've often wondered if my generation should have been in less of a rush to close cases and instead given more attention to the family recovery process. Wisely, we came to understand that government and its agents are poor substitutes for family, friends, and community, meaning that one of our primary responsibilities is connecting families to their natural support systems. We don't know if it actually takes a village to raise a child, but we do know that children need safe, nurturing, and permanent family ties to feed their bodies and souls. In the cases we see, this convergence of circumstances can take a good deal of time.

Our partners in the substance abuse and mental health treatment world have known for some time that there is constant ebb and flow to life, and that without our formal and informal resources, any of us, at any given moment, can become vulnerable. And yet, in child welfare, we are still a bit unclear about what our role is in the family's incremental healing process. Maybe it would have been wiser if we had mirrored the Twelve Step principle of connecting people to their familiar resources and encouraged them to remain in touch with those people, places, and things that foster support. Instead, we equated a closed case with our belief that the family situation was resolved. My advice to younger colleagues is to become familiar with the recovery community and listen to what they have to say about getting well, the reality of relapse, the role of sponsors, and the importance of spirituality.

On a related note, establishing and growing our connections with community partners--formal and informal--has enhanced our work and improved our outcomes related to safety and well-being. The next generation of leaders must elevate the need for federal and state finance reform, making it easier for these partnerships to be sustained. They should not be expected to manage a 21st Century public child welfare agency with mid-20th Century tools.

Race and Class

Our insistence on political correctness has sometimes limited our ability to have a frank conversation about poverty, class, and race as they relate to child maltreatment. Given the complex dynamics of child maltreatment, it has been necessary for us to have uncomfortable discussions about these issues and the influence they play in child welfare cases. The disproportionate number of children from low-income families and children of color who inhabit the foster care system is undeniable. Some of us have not, however, been willing to acknowledge those factors without qualifying our assumptions and assertions. Our inclination to infuse these discussions with comparisons between Caucasian, African American, and Latino, or wealthy and poor, has given us a pass on the touchy subject of how to balance community, government, and parental responsibility in child rearing. I've been in many meetings with colleagues--Caucasian and African-American--whose dialogue sounded as if it came from a script for political correctness, so that everyone could avoid offending each other. I've often thought medical professionals would never speak like this if they were facing an epidemic. I encourage the next generation of child welfare leaders to deal in facts and the sometimes discomforting data about race, ethnicity, and social class the same way that doctors would if there was a person in serious distress.

When we underestimate the reality of a troubled family's history, or the level of trauma enveloping the community in which they live, we increase the likelihood that children continue to experience poor outcomes. Our misconceptions--real or fabricated--about the families we serve create confusion about their complexity and the service strategies we should apply. I was encouraged in my conversation with Pryor of BACW about this issue. "We will do what is necessary, in our own way," she told me, reminding me to trust the leadership skills of my younger colleagues. In her role with BACW, an organization that championed the issue of racial disproportionality long before it was on the radar, she and her peers will be in a position to move us off-center to real solutions.

The Higher Purpose of Our Work

From its earliest beginnings, the child welfare field has struggled with the question of what role the government should play in the lives of families whose ability to care for their children is compromised. In addition, we have been pushed and pulled by outsiders and ourselves regarding our primary responsibility. In the last four decades, our priorities have included child safety, family preservation, timely termination of parental rights and permanency for children, no tolerance for substance abusing parents, child well- being, and community partnerships for child protection. For whatever reason, each became a stand-alone issue, reducing the complex reality of child maltreatment to jargon-filled sound bites. Individually, they became part of the magical thinking that we took to the media when the public periodically turned its attention to our work--usually after a horrific child death. Inevitably, we embarked on a new campaign to shift our agencies towards the prevailing wind, which as far as I can tell, hasn't stemmed the tide of poor parental judgment.

Still, in spite of our shortcomings, we have moved the field way beyond the previous generations. The amount of in-depth analysis about the children and families we serve, the unprecedented amount of resources being spent on child welfare, and the heroic acts of caseworkers and supervisors every day have all happened on the Baby Boomers' watch. Our responsibility, as in any family, is to assure that the next generation will do better. Our legacy is grounded in the work of our predecessors, who believed that we are the first responders to social emergencies. Our strength has been in our ideas, attitudes, and willingness to push the limits of the past.

Julian Bond once said, in reference to the civil rights movement, "I do think that some of us began to realize that this was going to be a long struggle that was going to go on for decades, and you'd have to knuckle down. A lot of people in our generation did that. They didn't drop out and run away." We should not diminish all that we have accomplished. On the other hand, as we begin to plan for our exit, we should take a professional and personal inventory that lays bare our areas of persistent challenge. More often than not, our hold on an agency's future is tenuous, but that is not an excuse for us to be content with the status quo. I'd like to think that at the heart of our legacy will be a belief in fairness, equity, respect, and self-determination that will inspire an even higher quality of work on behalf of children and their families in the future.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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