Radically decentralize DCF’s responsibilities
Child welfare agency needs to be embedded in communities it serves
THE MASSACHUSETTS ORGANIZATION responsible for running the state’s child welfare system has had four different names over a period of 40 years, which is not a sign of success. Each change was prompted by widespread concern with the way the agency did its work. Extensive media coverage of terrible incidents involving vulnerable children despoiled the organization’s reputation to the point where a name change seemed a necessary part of any rehabilitation.
The Department of Children and Families is again in the spotlight because of well-documented disasters over the past several years. Gov. Charlie Baker and his team are working to restore the agency’s credibility by adding resources, strengthening management, tightening procedures, and improving training. To its credit, the administration has not proposed changing the name. By dint of significant effort by people of good will, we can hope that things will improve at DCF.
At the same time, there is no guarantee that improvements will endure. On multiple occasions over many decades, the agency has been the focus of major rehabilitative efforts. Each depressingly similar chapter begins with optimism that the organization can get better at protecting vulnerable children but, after a few years, the familiar pattern reemerges: children die, bureaucratic bungling appears to have contributed, newspapers editorialize, the commissioner is fired.
We cannot expect a different result unless child protective services are comprehensively restructured. The task requires a fundamental rethinking of how the system is organized and how the statutory mission to protect vulnerable children is discharged. DCF’s responsibilities should be radically decentralized so that the power of intervention, the access to services, the money for operations, and the responsibility of governance are lodged close to the communities where the children and their families live. The past half century has shown that a hierarchical statewide bureaucracy will not successfully sustain the intensely local relationships necessary to discover, analyze, monitor, and mitigate the risks associated with abusive situations. Even competent and dedicated people, trapped in the wrong organizational structure, cannot consistently succeed in such a demanding task.
The organizational form of state agencies began to emerge early in the 20th century as an outgrowth of the Progressive movement. The thinking was that government departments should learn from the “scientific management” of the successful industrial organizations that had developed over the previous decades. Those organizations were mostly manufacturing enterprises where the work of the large number of lower-level employees was tightly controlled by smaller layers above them. Reformers argued that similarly designed public organizations run by professional managers would have more efficiency, less corruption, and less patronage. The pyramid structure in state agencies eventually became so standard that today it is hard to imagine alternatives.
In recent decades, many business organizations have moved away from standard hierarchical arrangements. The emergence of the service economy has required flatter structures that support the business objective by pushing power down. A service orientation means an emphasis on communication and collaboration that is inconsistent with pyramid structures. One scholar of organizational theory wrote that layered bureaucracies cannot compete today because they have “trained incapacity” resulting from “over-conformity.” Jack Welch, the iconoclastic GE boss, put the problem more directly when he said that hierarchical organizations are places where “everyone has their face towards the CEO and their ass towards the customer.”
It is revealing to review policy documents prepared in connection with Massachusetts’s child welfare crises over the past 40 years. Each time some voices called for more dramatic change than was instituted. In the early 1970s, public officials and child advocates prepared a “Plan to Reorganize and Decentralize Child Welfare.” They issued a report saying that “decentralization…provides a structure that will make possible the total community involvement of public and private agencies and interests.”
A few years, later the Committee on Children and Youth issued a detailed call for reorganization, proposing to divide the state into small districts of between 75,000 and 200,000 people. Each district would have a “children’s service center” with responsibility for “all programs operated for children in its area” so that “the responsibility for the delivery of services is close to the children in need.” The decentralization theme appeared often but, as the statutes were revised over the years, authority remained centralized with predictable results.
Perhaps the best public sector analogy for what needs to happen in child welfare is what has happened over the past generation in community policing. Policy makers came to understand that highly visible police officers focused on building relationships in the communities they serve were much more effective in crime control and prevention. Large-scale implementation of the community policing model required fundamental changes in the organization, management, and culture of police departments. Patrol officers, previously interchangeable cogs at the bottom of the hierarchy, became important decision-makers in managing community relationships and solving problems. Supervisors learned to support street officers and to rely on their judgement. These changes had enormous positive impact in many communities.
Decades of experience and research offer important lessons about how to design a child welfare system. Helping children at risk requires a decentralized approach with effective control over day-to-day decisions lodged in the community. Accepting those lessons is difficult for policy makers accustomed to traditional models of governmental organization. Authentic decentralization requires abolishing the hierarchical pyramid and breaking the direct line of control between the top and the bottom. This may even mean that the statewide organization overseeing child welfare should not be the same organization that delivers services at the local level.
Dividing the state into several dozen coherent districts, each small enough so that a capable staff can intimately know the community’s social structures, needs, and resources;
Designating in each district a local entity, governed by a qualified community board, as the child protection agency;
Vesting authority in the designated agency sufficient to discharge its responsibility and providing state funding using a demographic-driven formula;
Empowering a smaller state-level department to designate the local agencies, disperse funds, set quality and governance standards, and manage information systems essential for monitoring outcome performance;
Withdrawing funding or, ultimately, replacing the local agency if it fails to perform.
There are many more details to consider, but the goal is to create a true community-facing organization that has the authority and resources to do the job. Effective child protection needs organizational stability and enduring local relationships that qualified professionals can use in the service of their mission.The work of protecting children at-risk is brutally complex and there is no guarantee against mistakes. A new approach will dispense with the faux accountability of a hierarchical bureaucracy and will focus on creating and sustaining a network of people and services closely surrounding the children who need them. It will at least allow us to make new mistakes rather than repeat the old ones from which we have thus far failed to learn.
Edward M. Murphy worked in state government from 1979-1995, serving as the commissioner of the Department of Youth Services, commissioner of the Department of Mental Health, and executive director of the Health and Educational Facilities Authority. He recently retired as CEO and chairman of one of the country’s largest providers of services to people with disabilities.