Child Welfare Policy: Charity and Justice

Welcome, you are visitor #

Travels in the Trench Between Child Welfare Theory and Practice

Installment 4 (Middle of Chapter 2)

Child Welfare Policy:
Charity and Justice

We welcome your feedback! And be sure to visit us:

The Index ] [ The Cover ] [ The Haworth Press ] [ The Child Abuse Prevention Network ]
Previous Installments: [ Installment One ] [ Installment Two ] [ Installment Three ]

Dear Reader: Your comments on this installment, or any other installment, are always appreciated.

George Thomas

Athens, GA

Installment 4:   Chapter II, Part 2

In the previous installment, Thomas reaches the following conclusion:
“If the field persists in attempting to prove the merits of its case in terms of its ability to reduce behavior problems, chances are that the public will look elsewhere for solutions and find either the Minimalist or Maximalist perspective increasingly appealing.” The question that begins this installment helps us establish another point of view on alternative policy perspectives.


Figure 1 summarizes major differences between the policy perspectives of the Maximalists, Structuralists, and Minimalists on the three fundamental child welfare policy issues of poverty, parenting adequacy, and child development.

The Maximalists and Minimalists offer at least the possibility of real solutions, because in their different ways they attempt to draw the public and those being served into the service equation, whereas the Structuralists tend to exclude both from meaningful input and participation. In the Structuralist perspective we can see in more detail the closed-shop approach, in which child welfare services become their own customers.

FIGURE 1. Maximalist, Structuralist and Minimalist Policy Perspectives on Income Poverty, Parenting Adequacy and Child Development.

Policy Issue Maximalist Perspective Structuralist Perspective Minimalist Perspective
Income Poverty
Safety Net: All support some kind and level of basic needs provision.
Stakeholding incentives to extend discretion over basic needs provision and/or asset ownership to energize self initiative Standardized distribution of available resources to meet basic needs as fairly and impartially as possible. Limit provision to sustenance level to prevent encouraging development of dependency on the dole.
Parental Adequacy
Safety Net: All seek children’s safety and protection from harm in home/community.
Restoration/expansion of parental decision-making authority over circumstances govern-ing their children’s lives. Provision of substitute parenting or supervision, or specialized supports/training to bring parenting up to standards defined as services goals. Insistence on parental re-sponsibility and resourcefulness in finding supports to assure performance of basic child care functions.
Child Development
Safety Net: All agree children should be taught not to harm themselves or others.
Active promotion of behavioral competency development as highest priority, problem behavior notwithstanding. Preferential redress of problematic behavior by defined severity. Absence of problems signals competency development. Flowering of appropriate self development is expected to occur under conditions of assured safety and stable basic care.

First and foremost, the Structuralists believe that good social policy and the advancement of the interests of the B/P Complex are inextricably linked. I have no doubt that most would readily agree with Kamerman’s and Kahn’s (1976) view that the fundamental objective of policy-making activities is “. . . improved social policy and the vehicle is better planned and administered social programs” (p. 6). “Better” planning and “better” administration are obviously value-laden terms open to a variety of interpretations. To Maximalists and Minimalists “better” means less of both. While they differ markedly in their approaches to all three policy issues, their perspectives are similar because they limit the involvement of the middleman.

The Structuralist perspective stands apart. Structuralists believe in more precisely drawn plans and more closely administered services. Impeccable implementation of impeccably drafted plans is the criterion. Error is the degree that actual implementation varies from planned implementation. The results that redound to clients from implementation are of secondary concern. Beneficial client results are often simply assumed to occur proportional to the extent to which implementation approximates planned expectations. If plans were perfectly implemented all client problems addressed by them would be solved. The Structuralist perspective works best when public opinion and client involvement are limited or out of the way. The Structuralists seek to firm up their middleman role in a manner that permits them to translate public opinion and client feedback.

The translation of this input takes on the color of special interest pleading on behalf of the B/P Complex itself. Thus they are able to play their planning/implementation games by their own rules. Concern over who provides supersedes concern over who receives and to what effect.




The sheer size of the B/P Complex, its position as the “middleman” between the public interest and client needs, the constancy of its presence, and ceaseless promotion of its own interests in the definition of client needs assure that the Structuralist perspective will receive a priority hearing in policy-making processes. Concern over who does the providing and how commonly overshadows root ideological concerns over why we are providing what we provide and scientific concerns over what is being accomplished and for whom in policy making deliberations.

Since concerns over the who and how of service provision are far more amenable to resolution by bartering than either ideological or scientific concerns, they become the focus of strategic and tactical maneuvers instead of focusing on ideas and results (Murphy, 1981). Bartering is at the heart of the policy-making process and the B/P Complex is positioned to influence it. The policy-making process is the most appealing way to pursue their interests because it is the path that offers the least resistance.

The policy-making process offers virtually unlimited opportunities for bargaining. Figure 1 reveals six different orderings of the three policy issues that might be held by advocates of each perspective and eighteen different alignments across the three perspectives by which advocates might order priorities across the three policy issues. There are one hundred and eight possible ways in which advocates might engage in swapping priorities among one another relative to all possible pairs of priorities across all issues and perspectives.

The Structuralists are in a commanding position to broker these exchanges. This is accomplished by characterizing both Maximalists and Minimalists as impractical ideologues, fringe players positioned on the far left and far right of the continuum of political thought. In contrast, Structuralists pride themselves on sticking to the “art of the possible,” which translates into choosing to do the easy thing over the right thing whenever that choice offers better prospects of short-term gains. The easy thing is simply to add to existing programs on the assumption that “more is better,” rather than to evaluate their merits and on that basis to change or do away with them.

Structuralists characterize Maximalists and Minimalists as special interests, mildly irritating gnats on the elephant’s hide but not meaningful competitors. Both Maximalists and Minimalists are reduced to playing the policy-making game by the Structuralists’ rules. The primary rule is that to win the support of the B/P Complex, advocates of both alternative perspectives must characterize their proposals as pilot projects or experimental programs that conform to the B/P Complex. In this way the nation gets modest tests of workfare or stakeholding concepts but nothing of the magnitude that might provide proof of a better way of addressing poverty than what the B/P Complex presently offers. It is positioned to absorb any pilot project or experiment that wins some share of public recognition or popularity.

No good could come to the B/P Complex by letting either the Maximalists or Minimalists gain strength, and this would likely happen if the debate over poverty were to slip back into the public domain, where the ideology in both perspectives would be more likely to capture the imagination of the man-on-the-street than the dry “better planning and administration” proposals the B/P Complex backs.




We have lawmakers and judges who take in information from the public and from its distressed members and use that information to define the balance between charity and justice, which also defines the relationship between givers and receivers.

When we insert the B/P Complex, we insert a source that claims to speak for both the public and clients. The great majority of people who are invited to give testimony to Congressional committees prior to the enactment of laws are leading bureaucrats and professionals in bureaucracies committed to existing programs, persons with vested interests in what the lawmaking process churns out (Payne, 1992, p. 2).

Judges are held in similar captivity. Much of the case information upon which decisions are based derives from social worker studies and probation officer reports. There is nothing wrong with this, but this information is rarely counterbalanced by information of equivalent depth drawn directly from families, children, and informed members of the public.

After laws are made and decisions are handed down, the responsibility for interpreting and implementing both falls to the B/P Complex, the same source that plays such a prominent role in determining the kind and quality of information that is placed at the disposal of judges and lawmakers during the policy formation process. It is not stretching things to conclude that the B/P Complex is the most powerful player in the child welfare policy-making process. As Behn (1991) emphasizes, the concept of public administration that portrays neutral functionaries focused on implementing established policy by the book is antiquated. In today’s human services world we have managers, not administrators, whose every act has policy import (pp. 201ff.).




Child welfare services, much like other social services, have been performed within organizational contexts since the turn of the century, when the field’s pioneers began to establish a permanent technocracy to perform the middleman role in dispensing assistance to those in need. The massive bureaucratic expansion of this role during the post World War II era required some fine tuning of the functions of child welfare professionals, but not wholesale readjustments. This was accomplished for the better part by the movement of large numbers of professionals into management positions (Steiner, 1976, p. 254).

The widespread practice of merging professional and bureaucratic authority into management positions strengthened traditional top-down authority structures in child welfare organizations. The resolution of professional-bureaucratic value conflicts by individual professionals occupying these positions was relatively painless. The principles of social equity that define good bureaucratic practice-impartiality, fairness, and uniformity-can be easily interchanged with the principles of non-judgmentalness and objectivity that define good professional practice. The one source of serious conflict is between the bureaucratic principle of uniformity and the professional principle of individualism and client self-determination, but that can be resolved by taking account of the fact that organizational service resources are finite. Fair and impartial standards must be established to determine who gets what and how much. The professional principle is satisfied by doing the best that can be done to honor individual need and client self-determination within the choices permitted by the availability of resources. In this sense “best professional judgment” and “best bureaucratic judgment” come very close to meaning the same thing (Hardin, 1990).

How these values are expressed rests on the availability of resources. Since a behavior problem-reduction perspective tends to view clients as less than resourceful and their communities as resource deficient, this means that problem reduction depends on the availability of organizational resources under the direction of their leaders. Thus conducting inventories of available organizational resources and determining how to put them to use becomes the paramount concern of child welfare leaders. The attention of leaders is directed to tracking organizational resources, devising fair and impartial allocation procedures, and assessing the effects on those served, in that order.

The operational dictum that guides professional practice in bureaucratized child welfare settings today is Organization First: Process before People. This dictum both informs and is supported by four guides for practice, as identified in Figure 2, that taken together comprise the B/P Creed.

The B/P Creed evolved over the last several decades as a consequent of merging professional and bureaucratic authority. The first two guides, the doctrine of Parens Patriae and the concept of “In a Child’s Best Interests,” evolved from the workings of the policy-making process itself and are solidly embedded in the child welfare policy framework. As always, however, the organizational structure for implementing policy has been allowed wide discretion in interpreting these policies. The last two, “Best Professional Judgment” and “Lack of Resources,” are inventions of bureaucratic/professional practice and have been used as the primary basis for interpreting and putting the first two principles into play. Over the last several decades, the B/P Complex has also used the last two guides as the basis for the expert advice its leaders provide to policy makers before policy is made.



FIGURE 2. The Operational Dictum and Four Guides of the Bureaucratic/Professional Creed.
Operational Dictum: “Organization First: Process Before People.”
1. The Doctrine of Parens Patriae (Piscciotta, 1982)2. The Concept of “In a Child’s Best Interests” (Goldstein et al., 1980)

3. The Assertion of “Best Professional Judgment”

4. The Disclaimer of “Lack of Resources.”


The B/P Creed instructs members of the B/P Complex to conduct themselves “as good parents would, in the best interests of children, consistent with best professional judgment, to the extent that organizational resources permit.” The B/P Complex determines “how well” these dictates will be carried out and “how much” will be done by applying what it deems to be the prevailing professional state of the art and the best ways to allocate available resources. The B/P Complex’s authority to exercise these latter two prerogatives derives from its delegated responsibilities for policy implementation.

The B/P Creed, like all creeds, must be taken on faith. There is much about the operational dictum and each of the four guides that would be difficult to defend were they to be exposed to public scrutiny and debate. The interests of the B/P Complex would be ill-served by such scrutiny, which would occur if its leaders pursued those interests directly by attempting to assume a public role in the policy-making process. In addition to the risk that treasured principles would be challenged, such efforts might give rise to charges of blatant self-promotion and to confrontations with policy-makers resentful of intrusions upon their prerogatives. To realize its interests the B/P Complex requires a less direct strategy, one capable both of influencing policy issues through the provision of expert advice before policy-making occurs and of assuring that responsibility for implementing policy will be channeled through the B/P Complex after policy is made.

Following decades of trial and error, the field’s leaders appear to have settled on a strategy that maximizes child welfare organizations’ chances of realizing their interests while minimizing risks of exposing those interests to challenge: The Path-of-Least-Resistance Strategy. This strategy is not the opposite of a posture of passive acceptance of whatever is handed down by policy-makers. On the contrary, it is aggressively pursued using three time-tested tactics (see Figure 3).

The tactic of Converting Resource Limitations into Sheer Growth is used to head off complaint-driven public initiatives before they reach the stage of legislative bills, pending executive orders, or law suits. Since the B/P Complex cannot dictate policy, that is, the essentials of direction and scope in the services it delivers, the one avenue to influence open is enough growth in size to be able to exercise meaningful influence on the policy-making process.



FIGURE 3. The Three Tactics of the Bureaucratic/Professional Complex’s Path of Least Resistance Growth Strategy.
1. Before policy is made:
Converting Resource Limitations into Sheer Growth,
or Specialized Growth.
To avoid having to make internal appraisals and changes.
2. After policy is made:
Presenting Services as a Continuum of Care.
To prevent systematization and preserve growth potential by
the endless elaboration of hybrid specializations.
3. Before and after policy is made:
Keeping Service Supply below Service Demand.
To avoid having to prove effectiveness and to retain control over
the dynamics for converting resource limitations into growth.


Inflating the Boundaries of Demand.Maintaining Ill-Defined Boundaries around Demand.


Repackaging Demand through Relabeling and Redistribution.

The great issues that dominated the War on Poverty era permitted the deployment of a growth tactic of grand sweep. The B/P Complex offered expert advice on solutions by turning prevailing public support and complaints about inadequate services into a rationale that promised solutions through a massive build up in social programming. For a time this worked quite well, but by the mid-1970s public concern about social issues had decreased. For one thing, the public had become disenchanted with the Great Society’s initiatives. For another, economic decline meant that massive investments in social services programming could no longer be sustained.

Expert advice that suggested continued massive expansion began to fall on deaf ears, although public complaints about service limitations and shortcomings did not abate. A new strategy was called for and found in the form of growth by specialization. Public complaints could be managed by turning them, one at a time, into rationales for new specialized programs. This tactic was quite consistent with the overall Path-of-Least-Resistance Strategy and neatly dovetailed with the down-sized and fractured special-interest initiatives so characteristic of the 1970s and 1980s. It remains the primary tactic for growth within the B/P Complex today.

The tactic of Presenting Services as a Continuum of Care is designed to accommodate growth by specialization. Those who have been around long enough will recall how systems theory influenced the development of social service models during the War on Poverty era and into the mid-1970s. About that time systems theory lost currency and the concept of a continuum of care emerged. It is no accident that this shift roughly paralleled the tactical shift from “more of the same” growth to growth by specialization. Comparatively speaking, a continuum of care does a better job of accommodating an endless proliferation of specializations than does a system.

Systems theory and the concept of continuum of care are in no sense compatible. A system, by Gouldner’s (1970) succinct definition, is “. . . a group of elements whose interchanges restrict their functional autonomy” (p. 215). It follows from this that a process of simply adding specializations to a system might not eventuate in growth. Forces are at play in a system that would respond to their inclusion. New specializations might be accommodated, but then again, their introduction might generate competition leading to the new specializations conquering and dispelling the old, or the established swallowing up the new, or mergers between them, all of which could lead to no overall increase in size. From the B/P Complex’s perspective, such consequences would be counterproductive. The continuum of care concept, on the other hand, can be envisioned as a line that stretches in both directions into infinity, at least in theory. A specialty can be inserted and the only effect is to lengthen the line.

According to Kamerman and Kahn (1976, p. 253), the social service structure in the mid-1970s had the character of a non-system, but they note more hopefully that there were signs of an emerging or maturing system (1976, p. 508). In 1990 these same authors concluded from the results of their national survey of child welfare services that “. . . despite large private and public investments, the typical situation in the field of social services has been, for some time, extreme and irrational categorical fragmentation” (1990, p. 2).

What happened? Did the emerging system disintegrate? No, because what these authors saw as extreme and irrational categorical fragmentation was none other than the full flowering of the continuum of care. The tendency is to account for this categorical fragmentation by pointing the finger at politicians for catering to special interests. This is the tip of the iceberg. The virtually invisible mass below the water line is the B/P Complex hard at work, satisfied that it has found the key to growth without accountability even in times marked by financial constraints and growing public discontent.

The tactic of Keeping Service Supply below Service Demand is used both before and after policy is made to assure incremental growth by specialization and, by keeping the focus on this type of growth, to protect the totality of the continuum of care from close public scrutiny. Before policy is made, supply is kept below demand in negotiations between the Structuralists-the leadership representing the B/P Complex-and outside demand from Minimalist and Maximalist sources. It is in the best interests of the Minimalists to keep the B/P Complex away from big requests for “more of the same” growth and to minimize what the Complex gets in the way of growth by specialization. It is in the best interests of the Maximalists to obtain backing for their pet initiatives.

The B/P Complex is not an idea factory that encourages innovation for its own sake. But to grow it must constantly come up with proposals for new specializations that have a chance of public acceptance. Fortunately, outside intellectual sources in Minimalist and Maximalist attire can be depended upon to offer up an abundance of ideas and to press for their acceptance. Their ideas and the competition between them can be exploited to the B/P Complex’s advantage. It can select those ideas that appear to be most amenable to co-optation and in doing so lend a competitive advantage to their originators. The tradeoff is that their originators must permit their ideas to be co-opted.

In this manner supply can always be kept below demand, because demand is defined by the act of the B/P Complex’s recognition of its existence. To spur the pace of growth the B/P Complex officially recognizes as many specialized demands as it thinks policy-makers will be willing to consider and then presents them as being worthy of consideration.

This is essentially the information base that comes before policy-makers for their assessment. This information is refined and made presentable by (a) using statistical data to inflate the boundaries of demand, (b) maintaining ill-defined boundaries through expert testimony to the effect that the state of the art permits nothing more precise, and/or (c) repackaging demand by a process of relabeling and redistribution when confronted with the threat of a reduction in demand.

Inflating the Boundaries of Demand is illustrated in the program sponsored by the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA), which had estimated the eligible population of youths between ages 16 to 24 in 1988 to consist of 4.2 million who had dropped out of high school and 7.3 million who were not at work, looking for work, in school, or in the military. By blending these estimates, the JTPA program calculated an eligible pool of 5 million, of which less than 6% were being served.

Three reasons were given for this low level of coverage: Lack of funds, inadequate specialization in terms of support services, and “. . . many at-risk youth are so disconnected from mainstream institutions and so beset by problems . . .” that they are “hard to reach,” difficult to serve, or otherwise incapable of benefiting from the services offered. More money, more specialized support talent, and more support for outreach services were recommended (The Practitioner’s View, 1990, p. 5). The potential demand for program services was set so high as to be impossible to meet. This serves both as a rationale for requesting further growth and as an excuse for the limited impact the program was admittedly having in reaching and responding to its service demand.

Similarly, when the Federal government made a first estimate of nearly 500,000 runaway and throwaway children, the head of the National Network of Runaway and Youth Services was quick to add that the figure for all homeless youth probably exceeded one million (Growing Number of Homeless, 1990, p. A3). The U.S. Census Bureau’s recently announced figure of 228,600 homeless was quickly rejected by advocates for programs for the homeless, who insisted that the proper figure was closer to 2.3 million (Usdansky, 1991, p. D1).

When respectable looking numbers can’t be put together from seemingly respectable sources, we often make them up to inflate demand, as when we say that for every detected case of child sex abuse nine go undetected. How on earth could we know this with any level of certainty? What purpose can such projections serve except to inflate demand? I recall being within earshot of Henry Kempe when he ruefully reflected on having said, under pressure of repeated requests, that probably no more than 10% of all child abusers are psychotic. Today, that percentage is used as gospel (Jaudes & Mitchel, 1992, p. 8).

Some time back I was in the habit of collecting these projections of demand. I had a sheath of sources proclaiming 6 million children who were hyperactive and conduct-disordered, other millions who were being emotionally abused, more millions who suffered uncorrected foot disorders, still more millions of suffering latchkey children-not just latchkey children but latchkey children who were suffering and in need of services, and so on. If these estimates were to be taken seriously, virtually every child would be in need of some form of service from the B/P Complex.

Maintaining Ill-defined Boundaries is illustrated by Child Protective Services (CPS) programs, which are currently struggling to cope nationwide with upwards of 2 million annual reported allegations of alleged child abuse and neglect. Vague and varied definitions of the terms “child abuse” and “neglect” have led CPS programs to squander their available resources on investigating this mass of reports, of which, on average, 65 percent prove to be unfounded. Of those reports that are confirmed, over 85 percent involve “. . . excessive corporal punishment, minor physical neglect, educational neglect or emotional maltreatment . . . forms of . . . harm to children that pose no real physical danger.” Under current vague definitions of behavioral indicators used to infer abuse or neglect, it is conceivable that “. . . every shy or overly friendly child in the country will be reported” (Besharov, 1987, p. 35).

Applying these estimated percentages, roughly 1 in every 20 CPS investigations engages CPS in its central mission of protecting children from the threat or actual occurrence of real physical harm. These ill-defined definitional boundaries around demand have clearly contributed to vaulting Child Protective Services from a minor specialty to the centerpiece in contemporary child welfare services over the last two decades, and their helter-skelter activities help convey an image that demand continues to outstrip supply, which in turn supports calls for more funding and more specialized services to respond to seemingly overwhelming demand.

Repackaging Demand Through Relabeling and Redistribution, in response to reduced demand, is illustrated by the operations of juvenile delinquency services from 1975 to 1985, when they were faced with the threat of a serious reduction in demand because of the status-offender deinstitutionalization initiative. The average daily resident count in public juvenile delinquency facilities did decline about 10% between 1975 and 1979 but rose thereafter to produce a 5% gain for the decade. During the same decade the average daily resident count in private juvenile delinquency facilities rose by 25%. Overall the public/private counts represented a substantial gain of 15% over the initial decade of status-offender deinstitutionalization (Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin, 1989, p. 27).

The repackaging technique requires a great deal of ingenuity. In the above example it involved converting a straightforward public initiative, aimed at ending the practice of detaining status-offense adjudicated children in adult jails or sending them to delinquency-oriented facilities, into a movement to expand the provision of residential treatment for such children under private auspices. Doing so increased the number of adjudicated status-offenders served in this manner.

Repackaging generally involves converting comparatively small rates of problem incidence, as observed by the public, into problems of significantly larger dimensions that are no longer understandable in common sense terms or resolvable in straightforward ways. For example, status offenses are acts amenable to common sense understanding and straightforward responses, but status-offenders are complex beings saddled with dysfunctional behavioral syndromes who need highly specialized therapeutic intervention.

Repackaging takes two forms that often complement one another. The prevention form follows the dictum “get ’em younger, get ’em earlier, and get ’em all,” and the ameliorative form deals with the residual effects of getting ’em older, getting ’em later, and the unmet need that arises from failure to get ’em all. The prevention form is directed to defining “at risk” populations, to repackaging children and families not yet observably problematic into “problems in the making” by defining some of the characteristics in their conditions or behavior to be “risk factors.”

The ameliorative form is directed to repackaging children and families with problems as far more problematic than meets the eye. This follows from the argument that the problems of children and families are inherently more complex and difficult to deal with when we let them fester before intervening; that is, when we fail to get ’em younger and earlier. Thus, the problems children and families present are more serious than they seem on the surface and the proportion of children and families at serious “risk” in the overall risk pool is larger than common sense observation might suggest.

Within the B/P Complex much of this repackaging is driven by managerial opportunism, the exploitation of a loophole in funding source regulations, the transitory popularity of a type of child problem in the public mind, the chance appearance of a media expos- of child victimization, and so on. Service labels, problem definitions, and “at risk” populations sometimes are retooled with amazing speed and agility. As dramatic example as any occurred in the 1970s when the Federal government moved to separate income payments from social services in programs for children and families and provided higher matching payment rates for service cases. In short order the proportion of service cases to total caseloads in state agencies shot up in many states. It could be argued that this was simply an outstanding example of responsiveness to a change in public demand, but to do so would require showing services delivered and better results obtained for larger numbers of children and families. Had this occurred the public would have been the first to hear about it, would no doubt still be reminded of it, and would probably be more favorably disposed to support social programs for children facing endangered futures today than it seems to be.

The repackaging technique also enjoins those who use it not to publicly disclose its use by colleagues or other agencies, perhaps because disclosing the use of this technique might lead to being tarred by the same brush. Whatever the reason, managers in the child welfare field and elsewhere in the social services tend to defer to one another under the guise of mutual respect for one another’s specialized expertise or lack of acknowledged expertise outside the domain of one’s own program operations.

This reflects the existence of a conspiracy of silence between these walled-off specializations along the continuum of care. Each seems to maintain a studied ignorance of the others’ operations. Juvenile delinquency personnel would no more volunteer substantive recommendations on how CPS could sharpen its definitional focus than CPS would offer recommendations to youth employment programs on how to improve their outreach, or youth employment programs would suggest ways by which juvenile delinquency services might lower their institutional placement rates. Similarly, advocates of programs for runaway youth and the homeless can be expected to avoid debates on the issue of how much their individual estimates are inflated by overlapping counts.

There seems to be a shared belief within the B/P Complex that so long as this silent conspiracy holds up, the Path-of-Least-Resistance Strategy will support the continued expansion of the continuum of care and keep the public at arms length relative to accountability. If supply is never quite adequate to meet demand, the B/P Complex can never quite be held accountable for service limitations and shortcomings. The best the public can hope for when it points out these limitations and shortcomings is additional fragmentation of service priorities, more detailed allocations of available resources, and incremental growth through specialization.

In a good system of child welfare services forces exist to direct a search for internal accountability when it is faced with limitations or shortcomings. All specializations share a single set of standards for productivity and achievement that enables valid comparisons. The interaction between specializations also supplies knowledge about the operations of one another that may be used to challenge the value of other services. At times this leads to internal corrections. At other times it produces purposeful or unintentional public disclosures that provide the public guidance in targeting effective corrective actions. Either way the public benefits.

In a continuum of care no such dynamics exist. Specializations are sheltered in protective boxes constructed of rules, mutually respected throughout the B/P Complex, that define who is qualified to perform the methods each specialty claims and the range of methods each specialty is permitted to claim. The continuum of care responds to public complaints about limitations or shortcomings by seeking to identify previously unrecognized gaps in the “safety net” and then offering expert advice about how to fill them with new hybrid specializations. Issues of accountability are entirely projected outward from the care continuum to the public in the form of public responsibility for providing more resources to fill professionally identified service gaps.




A conspiracy among people is an agreement to act or not to act in some manner. People may also conspire not to agree on anything. This is a tacit agreement among the leaders within the child welfare field to follow the principle of “live and let live” among themselves, that is, to avoid the responsibility of commenting on the merits of one another’s programs. Some might pass this off as “professional courtesy,” but it is more like the price of admission paid to become a member of the club.

On occasion this conspiracy becomes visible in the lists of child welfare services recommended for support by the field’s leaders. More coordination of services is inevitably called for. The need for more coordination is the hallmark by which a conspiracy is detected, because the function of coordination is to keep the specializations along the continuum of care separated. If they were actually brought together, service duplication and the comparative merits of various specializations would become obvious, consolidation would result, and the need for coordination would diminish.

An impression of drift is conveyed when laundry lists issued by the field’s leaders are considered by themselves. For example, some commentators on the outcome of the 1970 White House Conference on Children, Youth, and Families have concluded that the field was incapable of reaching consensus and incapable, for that reason, of providing the nation with coherent policy recommendations on issues concerning families and children. The Conference’s cascade of “everything for everybody” recommendations was taken as a sign of intellectual chaos and a total lack of leadership (Gottlieb, 1977; Steiner, 1976).

The 1980 White House Conference on Families was designed to correct this by limiting attendance to special interest groups presumed to be qualified to speak to the issues. (Listening to America’s Families, 1981, pp. 10-11). This strategy seems to have prompted more recommendations, not fewer, along with considerable criticism from those who had been excluded that the Conference had been politically engineered to avoid substantive issues and to recommend nothing more meaningful than pious generalities (Ravitch, 1980).

Most child welfare bureaucrats have been taught that “big is better” and that growth means success. Most professionals recognize that their wages and reputations rest far more on being associated with prestigious organizations than on personal performance. This interest in organizational growth is unlikely to be put at risk or bargained away in open debate with others. They play the game according to the “live and let live” rule, which avoids winner/loser outcomes in manipulating the Path-of-Least-Resistance Strategy to secure their specializations.

The leaders of the B/P Complex do not do their best work in the public forums. They are much more adept at working independently to advance their own self-interests than in negotiating them between one another. They are much better at honoring a conspiracy of silence among themselves that permits each special interest to pursue its own fulfillment. The field is not adrift; it is moving purposefully in the direction of a never ending expansion of the continuum of care.



Electronic Editor’s Note: This is the end of the third electronic installment. In the next installment, we will start with the following question:


Readers are invited to send in their own answer to this question. The electronic editor will publish the best responses received. You can send your responses to the author, George Thomas, or the electronic editor, Tom Hanna.


We welcome your feedback! And be sure to visit us:

Index ] [ Table of Contents ] [ The Cover ] [ The Haworth Press ] [ The Child Abuse Prevention Network ]

[Haworth co-indexing entry note]: Thomas, George. Co-published simultaneously in Child & Youth Services (The Haworth Press, Inc.) Vol. 17, No. 1/2, 1994, and: Travels in the Trench Between Child Welfare Theory and Practice: A Case Study of Failed Promises and Prospects for Renewal (George Thomas) The Haworth Press, Inc., 1994, pp. xxiii-xxiv. Multiple copies of this article/chapter may be purchased from The Haworth Document Delivery Center [1-800-3-HAWORTH; 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. (EST)]. © 1994 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved.