Introduction- A View from the Trench

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Travels in the Trench Between 
Child Welfare Theory and Practice


Chapter I

Introduction- A View from the Trench


This book is about the evolution of child welfare services over the last half century, beginning after World War II. Since these services have been dominated by government and bureaucratized during that time, it is appropriate to visualize them as a small box within the larger box of the social services that, in turn, is totally encased by the world of public affairs, a world characterized by the interplay of political and bureaucratic forces.

I have chosen to examine child welfare leadership emphases and their consequences for shaping child welfare services as a field of work. I have done what I could to provide a studied account, but I do not pretend that it is free from personal bias nor do I apologize for the fact that it isn’t.

I have been an eyewitness to the entire era. I have encountered many of those who gave early direction to this field, either personally or through their associates, and since 1960 I have been an active participant as a street worker, graduate student, educator, researcher, administrator, consultant, microcomputer program developer, and advocate.

These travels have occurred in a Trench that separates Theory from Practice Wisdom. From this lowly but interesting vantage point, I have chosen to report on leadership emphases as they have been expressed within the arenas of policy, management, education, research, and information technology. Across them all there is a consistent emphasis upon growth, justified by escalating demand, which the field itself measures and has a hand in stimulating. Over the course of several decades steady growth has been achieved, but supply has never quite caught up with demand. Something is amiss in this equation, and it can be traced to the choices the field’s leadership has made and pursued.

1. In the policy arena, where the choice is between the roles of interpreter or mediator, we have opted for building a bureaucratic monolith powerful enough to presume to speak for the public interest and our own clientele’s needs, rather than finding ways to enable the two parties to better speak directly with one another and for themselves.

2. In the management arena, where the choice is between controlling work performance or relying on worker competence, we have chosen to distrust the competence of subordinates and clients alike and to emphasize the refinement of outmoded hierarchical authority structures.

3. In the education arena, where the choice is between cultivating an accepting state of mind or an inquiring state of mind, we have chosen to borrow ideas, and we presented them as self-evident truths rather than developing a scientifically validated knowledge base.

4. In the research arena, where the choice is between confirming what we do and how we do it or pushing back the frontiers of ignorance through discovery, we have elected to pursue confirmation.

5. In the information technology arena, where the choice is between preserving privilege or promoting communication, we have chosen traditional methods of communication and preservation of a tower of babble built of a bewildering mix of specialized terminologies, rather than accelerating the exchange of ideas by using new technology to facilitate the search for a common language.

In sum, one part of my message is that these mutually reinforcing leadership emphases have been successful in sustaining sheer growth in size through the good times of the ’60s and the bad times that followed, but only at the expense of alienating the public and those the field serves.

The other part of my message is that these leadership emphases, which served the field’s self-interests so well, have become liabilities as the 1990s open with a shift in public mood toward services oriented to child behavior competency development, a shift prompted by changes in the world marketplace and the nation’s economy in recent years. There is a clear need for redirecting leadership away from traditional emphases on behavior problem reduction and towards a mediator role, trust in worker and client competencies, the cultivation of an inquiring state of mind among students and staff, discovery and validation of new knowledge, and pursuit of a common language.

We have created services that are out of joint with the times and have made ourselves a huge target for rising public dissatisfaction and client hostility. The future of child welfare services is in serious doubt and turns on whether new leadership can be found in time to reverse their present course.

Writing this book took more than a year, largely because I discovered early on that nearly every point I thought important enough to write about raised questions with which I had long tussled and for which I had yet to find convincing answers. It struck me that I had not derived sensible answers for many of them, because I had found it convenient to settle for facile answers. Put bluntly, I had evaded the difficulties that would have been encountered in trying to answer them in a more substantive fashion.

But if I was to meet the challenge of determining the weight and substance of my travels, this time I would have to deal with these questions head on. I further decided that the best way to do this was to make these difficult questions the structural framework for the chapters on policy, management, education, research, and information technology.

With this in mind I devised a fictional interviewer, “BB,” and composed five topical interviews. This device offers the reader the opportunity to determine not only if I’m right, but also whether I posed the right questions in the right ways. What follows, with allowance for editorial license, is the substance of our exchanges.



That’s hard to say. There are straight-line paths for qualifying to become academicians and practitioners, those who populate its opposing sides. Trench dwellers are there because they couldn’t find comfortable role requirements on either side, or they wound up making the wrong career choices, or the right ones at the wrong time. Many of my associates in the Trench followed circuitous routes to it, much as I did.

Many on both sides still do not know it is there. I entered public child welfare work in Chicago on the recommendation of a friend that doing so would tide me over between jobs as a commercial artist and entered street gang work in response to a taunt from another acquaintance that I was not cut out for it.

This work lasted five years, during which I annually filed applications to prominent graduate schools for the morale boost that would attend occasional acceptances. The Dean of the Tulane School of Social Work fouled this amusement by calling my office and offering me admission. As I approached graduation, I traveled to the University of Wisconsin School of Social Work to interview for a field instructor’s job. Instead, they offered me a child welfare doctoral stipend.

With Ph.D. in hand, I left ten years of practice and student role playing behind and crossed over to academia, where I spent the ensuing eight years successfully chasing research grants. Dabbling in the production of empirical information led me to see the contrast between theory and practice wisdom and how little the formation of each was based on the other. I began to realize that I was peering into the Trench. I helped form a private, non-profit research institute, assumed its leadership, and took a leap to the bottom, where I have spent the better part of the last 16 years.



The world of public affairs is charged with responding to public concerns about that portion of the nation’s children whose futures are deemed to be endangered by their own behavior and/or by exposure to circumstances that cause or threaten to cause physical or mental harm. The search for response mechanisms has led to the evolution of the many services that make up the child welfare field. The proliferation of these services created a need for a coherent definition while making the task of arriving at one difficult. The conventional practice has been to substitute a form of intellectual accounting for a more discrete definition. This approach describes the field in terms of a list of services by categories, problems addressed, and numbers of children served. This leaves us with a “definition” of the child welfare field as the aggregate of what child welfare services workers do (Fanshel, 1966, pp. 88-143; Kadushin, 1974).

This method of drawing boundaries around the child welfare field remains in common use. The child welfare field today can be said to consist of services provided to the 400 thousand-plus children in foster family care (No Place to Call Home, 1989, p. 5); perhaps another 75 to 100 thousand in private residential group care, and equivalent numbers residing in mental health residential treatment facilities (Dougherty, Sax, Cross & Silverman, 1987) and in juvenile delinquency facilities (Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin, 1989, p. 27); somewhere between 500 thousand to 1 million runaway and “throwaway” children living in shelters, make-shift arrangements, and the streets (Growing Numbers of Homeless Youth, 1990, p. A3); undocumented numbers of children receiving family based services; additional numbers attending therapeutic day service programs or alternative schools under public and private auspices; and some of the millions of younger children in full and part-time day care programs.

Service groupings are continually being added to the pot-most recently crack cocaine babies and children of parents who carry the HIV virus. The practice of combining problem types (drug use) with age groups (teens), service methods (group treatment), and settings (day treatment centers) to manufacture ever greater numbers of more finely defined service categories is in evidence everywhere.

The field’s boundaries can be delimited somewhat by focusing only on services delivered under public and private social services auspices, but since fragmentation by problem or specialization is well advanced even under these auspices, this more tightly circumscribed description would add little or nothing to definitional precision.

Drawing boundaries around behavioral problems and adding up the pieces to define the field has its advantages. It establishes boundaries (a) between the behaviorally problematic (eligible) portion of the population and the rest, (b) between practice specialties that permits drafting neatly compartmentalized organizational charts, (c) between organizations and programs supportive of the concept of the aggregate as a single continuum of care entity, and (d) between this entity’s behavior problem reduction function and the behavior competency development functions performed by other non-family systems that serve children, such as the schools.

It also has drawbacks, the most obvious being the absence of a unifying vision or sense of purpose, other than that we all claim to be in the business of behavior problem reduction. Beyond that there are as many ways to seek that result as there are practice specialties, programs, and agencies. The way we define ourselves shapes the way others see us. Like it or not-and most don’t-to qualify for services children and families must first suffer the stigma of being designated as behaviorally problematic. By accepting our claims to special expertise in solving child and family-related behavioral problems, the broader public expects the same-no more and no less. Of most importance, narrowing our clients’ roles has the effect of narrowing our vision to the problematic side of human behavior and to devising methods to overcome client resistance.

We have painted ourselves into a corner. Our options for changing the field’s definition are limited to adding new problem-oriented specialties and inventing new ways to gain client acceptance of negative labels, which the field often mistakes for “building rapport.” All of this serves to further distance us from clients, making them “harder to reach” and “more difficult to serve” (Thomas, 1984), and from mainstream concerns with child behavior competency development. The dilemma posed is that with each boundary we draw to give the field more descriptive clarity, we risk becoming ever less responsive to public demand and those we serve.

Redefining the field as behavior competency development offers a way out. It would provide a unifying sense of purpose to counteract the endless fractionalization that results from pursuing child behavior problem reduction, put us back in touch with mainstream concerns, and make allies of our clients. This shift would reshape the field. It would ally the field with other competency oriented institutions like the schools. Much of what we do would be subjected to comparative scrutiny and it is likely that some of our problem-oriented specializations would not survive.

A redefinition of the field would free us from our narrow view of overwhelmed clients and resource-deficient communities. This would make it far easier to identify capacities in children and their families for self-care and self-direction as well as people in their own communities capable and interested in assisting them. We could find “Aunt Marys”-neighbors willing to provide respite, day care, and/or safe haven for tired and threatened mothers and their children; “cheerleaders”-cops, ministers, coaches, uncles, and older peers who really like and would be willing to help individual youths in trouble; and enough qualified volunteers to provide a flesh and blood legal custodian for every child in need of one.

These could be found just by asking around, making connections as needed, and getting out of the way. Maybe the communities we work in are not as resource deficient as we think. Maybe people who could help remain beyond our sight because they do not want to be associated with services that condition help on accepting problematic definitions and statuses.

Defining the field from a behavior competency development perspective would require taking all the variability represented by client strengths and community resources into account. The boundaries describing the field would become less distinct, but all those doing the work would be bound together by a common purpose. While the behavior problem reduction perspective offers a description of the field that is far more crisp in appearance, behind the orderly array of boundaries that separates problem specializations are clients and communities that often work at cross purposes. The field’s behavior problem reduction perspective prevents the development of consensus among service providers, clients, and the public over what the child welfare field is and does. In the absence of common understanding, the best that can be done is to describe the child welfare field as the aggregate of that which child welfare workers do.



There was a time, a long time, spanning the modern era in child welfare, from the beginning of the century up to the War on Poverty years, during which practice was shaped and directed by two separate, loosely defined worlds: The world of human behavior theory, lodged in academia, and the world of child-centered practice wisdom, as gathered by practitioners and scattered haphazardly among themselves across a variety of service settings and agencies.

Under optimal conditions the two worlds would have fit together seamlessly, working in tandem to empirically validate theory and to evaluate the efficacy of practice by independent standards held together by theory, a beautiful partnership that progressively advances the state of the art in child welfare for the benefit of children and the public that pays the bill.

But this was not the way things worked out. When the levels of effort that were invested over those decades in theory building, accumulating practice wisdom, and producing empirically derived information are examined, the latter (which is the glue that should bind the other two together) comes up short. The Trench has existed from the very beginning. It is such an integral part of the child welfare field that many do not even perceive its existence or its effect on practice.

By the mid-1960s neither side had spent much effort empirically testing what the other had to offer. Theory had come to represent just about any form of thought that met some minimal internal standard for consistency in the use of metaphor and specialized terminology, while practice wisdom had come to represent any body of observations about how best to work with children as confirmed by the “weight of the evidence,” that is, by how long the possessor had been at the task of accumulating it. The Trench between the two was already quite wide and continuing to widen.

The way to level the Trench that offers the best prospect of advancing the state of the art and maximizing benefits for children and the paying public would be to devote larger proportions of the labor pool on both sides to the task. This could be accomplished by educating line staff in the discipline of conducting empirical research on the job, equipping them with the tools of the trade, and making use of them an integral part of their jobs. This ground work could be accomplished by redirecting existing training resources to the task of orienting staff to (a) a research perspective in framing questions, (b) collecting data and analyzing it in their daily work, and (c) reorienting their superiors to utilizing the products of this new work perspective. Research skills are not the exclusive property of a tiny coterie of specialists. There is no good reason to believe either that line staff could not learn to incorporate basic research skills in their work or that doing so would make their work more time consuming or difficult to perform than when it is performed in order to follow bureaucratic prescriptions.

The major advantage would be the creation of a sound methodology for capturing and evaluating practice wisdom. Suppose that an agency imports a risk assessment instrument to improve worker estimates of the risk of child abuse in family households. Ordinarily line staff are trained in procedures for the appropriate use of such an instrument and sent on their way. At some later point management might ask line staff for information to determine the instrument’s effectiveness. The quality of the information sent up the ladder is likely to be diminished by faulty memory, biasing influences of comments from colleagues, and other ad hoc impressions.

On the other hand, if line staff were trained from the start to register remarks in the course of their work about which risk factors seem irrelevant, confusing, and/or contradictory when applied to various types of family situations, such information would not only provide a sound basis for judging the value of the instrument, it would be also be available on demand. The point is that a research perspective can and should serve to inform practice bottom to top. If child welfare organizations were to take the initiative by accepting responsibility for researching their work in an on-going manner, the Trench could be eliminated.

Unfortunately the two sides long ago found another way to deal with the Trench, one that was of immediate benefit to both but of questionable benefit to children and the public. Rather than undertaking research related efforts needed to eliminate it, the two sides built a bridge over it, created from mutually beneficial trade-offs that permitted practice wisdom to borrow theory to cover itself in a cloak of credibility, while permitting theory to be validated by the fact that it was being applied in practice. This enabled both sides to validate what they were doing without having to invest resources in conducting the evaluations needed to independently confirm their claims to state of the art knowledge and practice skills.

The result was the development of mutually supportive, self-justifying conditions within which the body of human behavior theory could continue to be built and the body of child-centered practice wisdom could continue to be accumulated in unchallenged fashion. Both flourished, while the production of empirically derived information languished. Unchallenged theory and practice wisdom piled up on either side of the Trench, sending them skyward, which also widened the Trench as the sides lengthened.

This created a real engineering problem, because it demanded the devotion of ever greater resources and efforts to keep the span, over which traffic in credibility trade-offs was conducted, from collapsing. This is another way of saying that by the late 1960s the established ways of maintaining credibility in both worlds had been stretched thin. The sheer height and width of the Trench threatened to call public attention to it. Since the public was beginning to adopt greater sophistication in its calls for accountability in social welfare programs, ominous consequences that might result from the discovery of the Trench seemed imminent.



The War on Poverty program saved the day, or put off the time of reckoning. This initiative integrated the child welfare field into the massive new social welfare program structures, assigning it a remote corner. Becoming a part of this new structure lessened the field’s public visibility for a time, but it was also made party to a new set of influences that effected the development and operation of the larger structure.

The fundamental features of the War on Poverty years were centralization, in the federal government, of authority over the social service structure and massive expansion in the funding of services, giving them their start toward becoming “big business.” The fundamental effect within the structure was to give rise to the idea that the organization of social services, the way they were put together, was the key to the delivery of effective services.

New cadres of leaders devoted to organizational technology and informed in their use of it by their shared faith in planning, strategizing, short term goals, and fanciful problem definitions-what I refer to as the Core Commonalities of True Belief-rose to prominence on both sides of the Trench. This fueled a shift in conceptual priorities towards the construction of detailed plans that promised to resolve complex problems and towards the development of strategies to obtain funding by the quickest route possible. In sum, this signalled a turn away from logical reasoning to logistics, from idea formation to cleverness in manipulating ideas, from consideration of the long-term consequences of intervention to the short-term goal of implementation, and from enhancing the understanding of human behavior to postulating fanciful problem definitions. This was a turn away from theory and practice wisdom and a turn towards the mechanics of planning and procedural precision as the preferred basis for informing the delivery of services and measuring their effectiveness.

Within this new order, theory and practice wisdom were relegated to secondary importance and grew increasingly irrelevant, because the new leaders believed that their command of program resources provided them the wherewithal to engineer and manufacture social reality in ways that would produce desired social-services results at will. For these new gatekeepers of the bridge, the traffic in theory and practice wisdom across it proved to be an annoying and insupportable mix of noise and posturing that served only to muddy their simplified perceptions of social reality and to slow the pace of progress. Their best interests were served by reducing traffic to the content of the Core Commonalities of True Belief. Ending exchanges between leaders in academia and practice wisdom put an end to the mutual benefit rationale that sustained them and caused traffic across the bridge to dwindle.

Leaders on both sides concluded that their self-interests could now be realized without the help of the other through skillful planning and strategizing aimed at manipulating problem definitions to achieve short-term gains. The bridge was no longer needed because the use of theory and practice wisdom to cross-validate one another was no longer necessary. It fell into disuse and disrepair and eventually collapsed. Henceforth the merit in what was being done in academia and the field would be directly established by putting plans for desired states of social reality into place, brick by brick, box by organizational box.

Put another way, this new emphasis on organizational technology led immediately to defining the unit of service delivery to be a case, not a child. Costs would be calculated and paid on a per diem, per case basis; services would be case managed; and accountability would be assessed in terms of case number and activity tabulations. This shift paid a short-term dividend by removing any threat that the public might ask the child welfare field for an accounting of itself in terms of child development outcomes. Had such a demand been made things could have become very embarrassing, because the field had practically no base of empirically derived information with which to defend itself.

As things evolved, however, it became clear that in the adoption of the case as the unit of service, human behavior theory and child-centered practice wisdom would no longer play a central role in service delivery. Case labels and eligibility criteria had reduced the importance of conducting thorough behavioral assessments at intake. In addition, the kind of practice wisdom needed to deliver services was that of skillful execution of organizationally-derived policy, regulations, and practice methods. The delivery of highly defined, packaged or labeled services by prescribed approaches and schedules obviated the need for human behavior theory and child-centered practice wisdom in the service delivery process.

In directing services to cases and guiding their delivery by the best ethical standards of “uniformity, impartiality, and fairness” that the newly grown bureaucracies could muster, the personal characteristics and backgrounds of the children being served also lost their central importance. As an artifact of becoming cases, children’s personal identities were discounted.

The result was to disconnect both public and private child welfare service agencies and programs from their surrounding communities by tying them directly to centralized regulation and control. Federal initiatives established bureaucratically contrived definitions of client need, uniform payment standards for services delivered, and process measures for accountability. These new tools were passed to the states along with program monies that found their way into private agencies via purchase of service contracts. The speed with which the new structure of services became pervasive is reflected in the fact that as early as the mid-1970s private agencies serving children and families nationwide had become dependent on government for more than half of their total funding support (Gibleman & Demone, 1990, p. 7).

The promissory note embedded in all of this was that organization was the key to improving the delivery of services to children and their families. The child welfare field has had decades to prove the merits in that premise, but it has yet to deliver. The public’s patience is nearing exhaustion and it is on the brink of calling in the note. It is time to pay up or declare bankruptcy and begin the process of building a better way.



That’s what logic would suggest and also the path that public thinking has taken in response to the evolution of the social services from the 1970s to the present. Over this time period, the social services have become a major industry in the United States, and their very size makes them the most visible and obvious targets when the public and clients become dissatisfied with what they are getting. Of course, the claim that organization is the key to effective service delivery has a good deal to do with planting the idea in the minds of the public and clients that organizations themselves are at fault for detected failures. Child welfare organizations have isolated themselves, leaving no one or no other source to blame. Having accumulated the means to define, deliver, affix charges for, and evaluate services, they had no further need for theory from the academy.

What they now needed from the academy was “nuts and bolts” advice on how to put the parts in place-how to operate in a “business-like” manner. During the 1970s child welfare organizations had easy access to governmental funds for “nuts and bolts” project work, which helped finance retooling the academy to provide the requisite graduates and consultation. Human behavior theory pertinent to understanding clients themselves gave way to helpful hints useful in shaping newly bureaucratized roles for clients in order to fit them to organizational processes. Service failures could no longer be fobbed off on the use of air-headed consultants or graduates of the academy who brought cockeyed human behavior theories with them into the practice arena.

Similarly, by severing line employees’ umbilical cords to their bodies of child-centered practice wisdom, child welfare organizations made them dependent upon organizationally contrived and sanctioned bodies of practice wisdom composed of prescriptions designed to insure the precise implementation of policies, procedures, and methods. This meant that the practice wisdom of line employees could no longer be blamed for service failures, because pointing the finger in this direction would be tantamount to blaming organizationally-sanctioned prescriptions for practice. By processes of elimination, the leaders of child welfare organizations had placed themselves squarely in the center of an ever more dissatisfied public’s sights.

The shift from children to cases as the service delivery unit had profound effects on life in the Trench. From the late 1960s onward the research and development purse grew progressively fatter. Correspondingly, the strings being pulled by newly flush government sponsors tightened around new research and development priorities. Human behavior theory and child development outcome research were squeezed out in the rush to underwrite the development of operational tools needed to run the growing bureaucracies. If it is possible to imagine, this slowed the snail pace at which work was being conducted to produce empirically-derived information suitable to testing the efficacy of human behavior theory and to evaluating services from a child-development outcome perspective.

Money fueled growth industries on both sides of the Trench as the academy, freed of the rigors and tedium of theory construction, spewed out “nuts and bolts” concepts and designs and graduates skilled in these arts, while practice consumed itself in perfecting a new case management-case accounting body of practice wisdom. Both sides of the Trench shot skyward by exponential leaps.

The newly bureaucratized service structure dismissed the checks and balances that existed when the child welfare field depended on an alliance between the worlds of human behavior theory and client-centered practice wisdom, both of which relied on bases of information located outside and beyond the reach of organizations. Granted, the credibility of these sources was highly suspect; still, they were at least sufficiently independent to provide a separate perspective from which the effectiveness of organizational operations could be assessed. From the War on Poverty to the present, a different standard gained precedence, one almost entirely under the control of child welfare organizations and devoted to case-centered service accountability. That standard took the form of the operational dictum: Process before People.

Those of us in the Trench watched the standing room at the tops of both sides shrink, as they grew and their slopes lengthened. The old worlds of theory and practice, redefined and outpaced by the rising importance of organizations in the service delivery process, ceded what remained of the high ground on both sides to organizational authority and its central concerns with planning and strategy.

One more thing was happening that was quite discernable at the bottom, but out of sight of those at the top. As organizational authority took control of the shrinking room at the top, ever larger numbers of former occupants fell, were shoved, or voluntarily jumped to the bottom, joining growing numbers of children and families that failed to qualify for services. The increasing distance between child welfare organizations and their critics and clients resulted from their single-minded pursuit of their own interests. Since they now controlled service definitions, along with almost everything else, it was easy to attribute this distance to the behavior of clients who were declared to be increasingly more “difficult to serve” and “harder to reach.” Clients at greatest remove, virtually out of sight and unreachable, were magnanimously awarded membership in the underclass (Jenks & Peterson, 1991).

The growing numbers of ill-served and unserved children and families on the floor of the Trench are being joined by increasing numbers of disaffected ex-employees and disaffiliated theorists, who bring with them valuable inside information about the workings of child welfare operations and ideas about how to do things in ways that might be better for children and the public. This body of information identifies child welfare organizations as the bad guys. Acceptance of that general theme is growing in the Trench and spreading beyond it. It is picking up steam as an explanation for the continuing plight of large numbers of children and providing the rationale for an intensifying search for a better alternative.



“Process before People” has worked well for child welfare organizations for nearly three decades. Most of the people leading these organizations have spent their entire careers in organizations that operate this way, and many were taught in graduate schools that this is the way child and other social welfare organizations are best shaped and led. If the leadership knows services are being driven by the wrong dictum, they have to contend with their long standing promissory note to the public that well run organizational operations do produce effective services. To declare publicly that this promissory note is hollow would risk being held in contempt by one’s colleagues and being defined a traitor to the field. These are extremely powerful disincentives, given the massive investment that has been made over the last several decades in trying to prove that point. The public’s patience in waiting for organizations to deliver on this promise is growing very thin, but the public’s impatience seems to be producing paralysis among organizational leaders, not responsiveness.

Short of moving to adopt “People before Process,” which would require a “bottom-up” reversal in how services are delivered, the leaders of child welfare organizations seem to be stuck in a “no win” situation. They literally have no escape from blame, because in making organizations paramount in the service delivery process, they have left no one else to blame. Their choices are to defend their operations by showing that they are being run impeccably, which directs attention to the faulty structure of the operations, or they can admit to poor operational performance as the cause of poor service results, which invites the public to conclude that management is inept.

There is one possible and often used escape route: Try to blame service shortcomings on a lack of resources and call for more money, better staff, and the like. Unfortunately the public’s growing familiarity with how that one has worked out over the last several decades makes it ever less persuasive.

There would seem to be no good alternative to going to the Trench and investing in the production of empirical information on child-development outcomes capable of validating pertinent human behavior theory and child-centered practice wisdom. This would begin the process of moving toward a service structure driven by “People before Process,” but it would not be a reversion to the old worlds of invalidated theory and practice wisdom. The reentry of human behavior theory and child-centered practice wisdom would be in doses, as it is validated in terms of its established value in assessing and explaining successful and unsuccessful service initiatives. This is a service process that works from the “bottom-up” rather than from the “top-down,” one that has considerable potential for improving upon the capacity of the present approach to deliver benefits for children and the public.

There are those defenders of the faith who find the problem not with the way things are, but with the critics themselves. As one put it recently, “Reform is not a loving term. . . . So, why are people who profess such love for child welfare so bent on reforming it?” (Morton, 1990, p. 1).



Observations of that kind tend to come from the organizational leadership clique that controls the tops of both sides of the Trench and others (like consultants) who meet the standard for admission: Like-mindedness. From their perches they have grand views of both sides-theory and practice-but their views are filtered through an understanding of the way organizations have traditionally operated. They are “top-down” thinkers, something of an occupational hazard of being where they are.

You know what these folks do when they feel that something must be done about the way things are going? They query other child welfare leaders, state program commissioners, heads of prominent private agencies, and academics and consultants of like mind to take the pulse of the field. In short, they talk among themselves and then design their proposals for change. Amazingly, much of the time they come out advocating for more of the same-more money, more staff, more this and that-to do more of what is already being done. This passes for innovation and is passed on to the federal and state capitols for funding (Payne, 1992, p. 2).

They have a grand view, but not necessarily vision. Had they vision they would have been able to see to the bottom of the Trench where the folks in need of real changes reside, and where some different ideas are always percolating upward about how to effect those changes. They would recognize that the kinds of changes that would really improve things must come from the “bottom-up.” It would be nice if some of those people would shed the organizational filters from their thinking, because if they did they would voluntarily dive into the Trench and lend a hand.

The difference in effect on children between “Process before People” and “People before Process” service environments is real, but it only becomes obvious to the public as its interest in child behavior competency development emerges. When child behavior problem reduction is of paramount concern, the public seems satisfied that any type of living circumstance within the bounds of decency that controls, contains, or eliminates problem behavior is satisfactory.

In thinking further about the real differences exposure to one or the other emphasis makes for children, I was reminded of an article I prize titled, “On Being Sane in Insane Places” (Rosenhan, 1969). Briefly, some college students had themselves admitted sub rosa to a mental hospital serving adolescents and young adults, the objective being to get an inside view of how things worked. What they found-and they weren’t looking for it-was that while ward staff were paid to care for patients and often voiced this commitment within earshot of patients, they spent most of their time inventing procedures, schedules, and rules; attending staff meetings; taking personal leave to lengthen lunch hours; and other measures that were so effective in avoiding patients that many staff had reduced their contact with those being served to a few minutes a day.

Staff had shifted the burden for running the organization and the care process to the patients themselves. Lacking the authority and experience to actually run the place, patients stuck blindly to the rules. To have acted otherwise, they feared, would have invited chaos. This is a typical example of what goes on in a “Process before People” child welfare operation.

Transferring the care burden to the backs of children diverts children’s attention from the future and their energies from the process of incremental learning and growth, to the growth arresting process of attending to the here and now and maintaining acceptable role performance.

Children living in any kind of home or out-of-home placement environment that makes such demands on them may well wind up being less prepared to handle the tasks of growing up than they should be and come to view themselves and the world about them in negative terms. When he led General Motors, “Engine Charlie” Wilson is reported to have said, “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country,” but what’s good for child welfare organizations is not necessarily what’s good for the children they serve or the country.

The extent to which “Process before People” permeates practice in the child welfare organizations could be readily determined by simply forbidding the use of the term “case” by staff. No doubt I am overstating the effects of such a simple experiment, but I do think staff in such organizations would in some modest ways temporarily lose their bearings until they located replacement terminology by which to express themselves and to define their relationships with those they serve.



The nation is beginning to move towards that conclusion and is beginning to scrutinize how “Process before People” services produce this effect. Close inspection will reveal that hindrances to the development of children stem from converting children from dynamic behavioral entities to static entities called cases.

The conversion of children to cases irons out variability in children, which is a boon to the smooth operation of organizations. A child becomes a case through the assignment of a status. All cases must have a status because that is what justifies service provision. All statuses are negative, that is, problematic, because child welfare services are in the problem identification-problem resolution business. Consistent with labeling theory, an assigned status is generalized to the whole child: A child in poverty becomes disadvantaged; a physically abused child becomes a victim; an unruly child becomes incorrigible, hyperactive, conduct disordered, or a status offender, depending on who is at the definitional controls. Through assignment to membership in these larger classes, each child acquires the characteristics that have been fixed to them and gives up a substantial portion of his or her individuality.

This process of generalization smooths out the variability in children by dismissing the 95% of their behavior that may fall within broad definitions of ordinary competency and social acceptability, while concentrating all the attention on the 5% identified to be problematic. This is to the benefit of organizations because well-oiled procedures and methods can now be put into play to deal with the small, problematic part. The other 95% is dismissed, to the relief of everyone, because it represents a vast, unknown region of highly individualized, varied, and unpredictable behavior. To let that into organizational processes could wreak havoc, so it is packed, like so much baggage, and checked at the intake desk.

In juvenile delinquency services, operations are typically premised on a behind-the-scenes melange of theories of deviant behavior. The behavior of young people entering them is judged not by its approximation to standards for competency, but rather by its approximation to standards for deviancy. Thus delinquency is not an act or series of acts, it is a life style. Three life styles are permitted: Delinquent, reformed delinquent, and potential delinquent. This mind set is so pervasive that it tends to be extended to the families of youths in delinquency programs with equal vigor:

Some experts would add that there is pathology in every family where there is delinquency. Indeed, even though families may look normal to casual observation, a thorough case study will always reveal some type of pathology. (Katz, 1990, p. 3)

This “seek until you find” strategy is effective in bringing parents into the service orbit. The idea is simple: Find a problem to justify a status to permit opening a case. When I began working with street gangs, I carried this perspective without knowing it. I expected deviancy at every moment, suspected its occurrence when I couldn’t see it, and presumed everyone capable of it. I categorized the gang boys into three groups: Those who had sworn off, those who were actively engaged, and those on the brink.

By my novice understanding, these three categories comprised the totality of adolescent behavior in ghetto streets. Like the approach to families noted above, the idea was to look beyond the surface of ordinary behavior to the real stuff beneath. Experience soon taught me that the vast majority of these boys did not have the imagination, energy, or inclination to take advantage of much more than 5% of the opportunities for deviant behavior presented them daily in the streets.

Directing 100% of my attention to roughly 5% of these boys’ behavior was the worst investment I ever made, but those were the rules and the theories by which we all worked. Any program that acted like this but was truly held accountable to claims of an intent to advance the development and improve the behavioral performance of the children it serves would have gone under long ago. But juvenile delinquency services account for cases, not people, and in so doing they have been able to pass off bookkeeping manipulations of assigned deviancy labels, showing movement on paper from more to less serious problematic statuses as a contribution to youth development.

Cases are things to be managed, and management requires rules. Case accountability also requires rules, because it is by noting exceptions to the rules that the quality of both employees’ and childrens’ behavior is measured. Rules, lots of rules covering lots of things, are needed to assure good case management and comprehensive case accountability. When children enter care in a child welfare organization they will be guaranteed to encounter far more rules than they ever face in the more loosely structured and more tolerant community environments from which they come and to which they will eventually return.

From an accountability standpoint only the exceptions count. Little notice is paid to the 95% of behavior that goes on between the exceptions. Paying attention to behavior between the exceptions would tell us a lot more about children than concentrating on interpreting the exceptions. But this would be highly inefficient and procedurally incorrect from a “Process before People” point of view.

If children are paying attention they learn two lessons. First, most of their life-space will be filled with rules that stress compliance to the average, the norm, and the mediocre. Excelling beyond what the rules call for is as much frowned on as not living up to them, because both pose serious threats to operational smoothness. Second, no one pays much attention to children who are not breaking the rules, that is to say, not demonstrating problem behavior.

Some lessons! Be mediocre and get approval, be problematic and get attention. Unintentional effects, no doubt, but they could not have been much better designed to produce the kinds of behavior that support smooth case management and confirm claims to accuracy in affixing problematic labels, the two self-justifying standards to which organizations prefer to be held accountable.

Great benefits flow to child welfare organizations from this case processing emphasis, but smoothing out variation and unpredictability in the middle phase of the service delivery process requires organizational control over the service entry and exit phases as well. This is facilitated by claiming sole expertise in defining the behavioral problems various child welfare organizations address and equivalent expertise in determining when they have been resolved. Child welfare organizations acquire authority for defining who and what clients are, on the premise that detecting and analyzing the subtle and complex problematic elements in clients’ lives and living conditions is well beyond lay capacities.

This one-sided emphasis on problems converts whole people into problems, which prepares them for pigeon-holing as cases arranged by case statuses. Children and their families first become victims, and then victims of highly specific types. Of course, most people resent having the variation in their lives reduced in this manner, but like pigeons, what can they do about it? Resistance would only further confirm the imposed definition. In determining when behavior problems have been resolved, it is assumed that no one possesses superior expertise to those who define them.



Successful business people, especially in this age of intensified competition, will tell you that their success comes from following another dictum: The customer is always right. In child welfare, supply dominates demand in the supply and demand equation, and the operational dictum is: The organization is always right. The client gets what’s offered. Those who want something else must go elsewhere. This is reminiscent of John Belushi’s old “Saturday Night Live” skit in which he plays a short order cook in a diner. No matter what customers ordered, Belushi responded, “We got cheeseburgers, cheeseburgers, and cheeseburgers!”

Some people get edgy when discussion turns to the applicability of “the customer is always right” in social welfare services and start talking about the distinction between a market economy and non-market driven social welfare services. It doesn’t matter how child welfare services are financed, their futures should depend on providing what the public wants as much as businesses depend on their paying customers. What the public wants from the child welfare field is assistance in helping children develop in a manner that will aid them in becoming productive adult citizens, but there are growing numbers among the public who don’t think they are getting that.



Increasingly competitive conditions in the world economy are causing the public to reexamine what it expects in preparation for adulthood for children being cared for in alternative living arrangements, as well as their own homes. Expectations concerning behavioral competency development are on the rise. The idea that most children can endure and survive a “Process before People” upbringing no longer assures that they will be able to cope with the world they will live in as adults.

Would children-and the rest of us-benefit from child welfare services that consistently put “People before Process?” No question. First, children have a right to services within which they have opportunities to excel. “Process before People” service environments virtually assure an emphasis upon mediocrity, whether they are serving single children or groups. Second, children have a right to expect organizations that serve them to accept appropriate responsibility for their social development. In sum, they have the right to service environments within which they are treated as people, not cases, and within which they are accorded the status of prime beneficiaries rather than that of raw material to be processed. How could we go wrong by replacing exploitative “Process before People” service environments that children endure with developmental “People before Process” service environments that children might well enjoy?

On any given day between 1 and 2 million children are living somewhere out-of-home, and additional large numbers are involved in day treatment programs. A large proportion of these children are being served by children and youth services. There is no way that the future of the nation will be as bright as it might be, unless these children are provided service environments that permit them to develop beyond mediocrity.



They will be able to hold on a bit longer. Child welfare claimed the whole lives of children by generalizing the 5% problem to the whole child, as previously mentioned. To the extent that they can, they claim whole families as well.

This is a neat bit of hornswoggling, because if we assume that some part of the behavior of these children and families must be normal and acceptable by public standards, then the public possesses the expertise to judge the product of child welfare services, which also opens the door to public intrusion into their operations. To protect professional statuses and smooth running operations, not to mention the procurement of public support without having to prove merit, it is in the best interests of child welfare organizations to manipulate symbols and bureaucratic arrangements in ways that keep the public mystified and/or locked out.

A great deal of inventive strategizing has been employed over the years to extract funding support while avoiding accountability. Two examples that are currently achieving notable success will illustrate the point. The first deals with a strategy aimed at tapping third party payments from the private sector purse, here represented by the insurance industry. Once past the field’s general disclaimer that social services cannot be properly driven by market forces, it would seem that this strategy involves nothing more or less than the conventional business marketing practice of tailoring services to whatever the market will bear.

This initiative is based on a drive for monopoly. The idea is to win acceptance for the definition of client problems at levels of complexity and severity so that only those highly skilled in problem detection, analysis, and resolution, as testified to by their credentials, are warranted to collect payments for performing these activities. This is a closed shop initiative controlled by a professionalized cartel that establishes problem definitions by consensus and then lobbies to secure a legislative right of ownership. The insurance industry is placed in a position of paying for services provided by designated professionals working in specific kinds of agencies or programs, whether they are capable of demonstrating their effectiveness or not, and whether or not some other “unqualified” source holds promise of delivering better results.

The effect is a form of price fixing that associates higher levels of problem complexity and/or implied difficulty of resolution with higher service payments. This places a premium upon defining client problems in as complex and difficult to serve ways as possible to maximize cash flow.

This is not to say that most child welfare agencies unscrupulously inflate client problem definitions simply to make more money, but it is to say that the incentives lie in that direction. To counteract this the insurance industry pursues cost containment, usually by seeking to impose limits on what it will pay for in terms of types of problems and/or the location, frequency, and duration of service delivery. In one way or another these matters are settled through negotiations between service providers and the insurance industry.

It should be noted that the public interest is not a party to these negotiations, and that the issue of who produces the best results in terms of improvements in the well-being and quality of life of children and families served is not at stake. Accountability is assessed in dollar terms and may be defined as the point at which what the insurance industry is willing to pay for meets what service providers are willing to accept. When service provision is dictated by type, location, frequency, and duration in such agreements, rather than by need and outcome, there is really no other way to define accountability.

The other example illustrates a strategy aimed squarely to appeal to the public’s interest in child development and designed to tap the public purse. This is the so-called “Children’s Trust Fund” strategy, which has been successful enough to have been legislated into being in at least thirty states. On the surface who could object? This is a way of investing money in children’s futures, isn’t it?

Not exactly. Money comes in all right, tax money derived from state income tax check-offs, surcharges imposed on divorce decrees, birth certificates, marriage licenses, and the like. But the interesting part is that these “Trust Fund” monies don’t go into accounts for the long term, direct benefit of children. There are no trust funds, no funds being invested or gathering interest, none being paid out directly to children or their guardians, and there was never any such intent (Committee for Economic Development, 1987). This is a charade to appeal to public sentiments in a way that guarantees financial support for agencies without having to go directly to the public to get it.

These “trust fund” monies are deposited in accounts governed by overseers, who are drawn from the “problem-oriented” child welfare establishment, and who disburse them to-guess who? This is not to say that the problem-oriented services receiving funding from this source are unworthy, but if these are truly trust funds why not let the public judge more directly whether they are being used as they would like them used? Exploitation of public sentiments in promoting organizational fund raising under the guise of creating trust funds should cease and these organizations should come out into the cold light of day and put what they are really doing to the test of public judgment.

Another reason that child welfare organizations will probably be able to cling to their “Process before People” ways of doing things for a bit longer has to do with a powerful set of tools, in the form of organizational rules and professional methods. These have been woven into a straitjacket into which children are fitted in converting them to cases. This set of tools enables child welfare organizations to produce just about any effect desired in children, at least while they are undergoing care.

By weaving bureaucratic rules and close supervision of behavior with professional labeling skills and psychotropic drug therapy, if needed, tightly controlled conditions are brought to bear that can make behavior happen or go away on command, as long as children remain under these controlling conditions. The anecdotal results of this wonder working process are there for all to see. They speak for themselves, require no independent verification, and justify whatever price the public is asked to pay for them. Who knows what behavior children might revert to upon escaping these controls. No one can predict the future, and child welfare organizations cannot be held accountable for post-service behavior failures that were probably prompted by uncontrollable variables in their living environments.

A great deal has been invested in creating this “closed shop-organization as its own customer” approach in child welfare services. The self-serving advantages of preserving it are equally obvious. As long as the public’s role can be limited to that of bill payer-however begrudging-the client’s role can be limited to that of an inert case and things can run smoothly and predictably. Client complaints can be dismissed as unwarranted carping and the public’s episodic efforts at reform can be deflected without having to make major concessions or accommodations.

There is some evidence, however, that the public is beginning to catch on and that this growing awareness is linked both to rising concern over the preparation of this generation of children for tomorrow’s world and to increasing suspicions that the ways in which child welfare organizations are presently operating may be preventing them from making the contribution expected of them with the children they serve. The importance of investing in the development of the 95% competent part of a child is becoming more important to the public than the rectification of the 5% problem part.

As this shift takes hold, child welfare organizations’ “Process before People” operations will be threatened in a far more serious manner than any past episodic reform movement has been able to mount. This is because behavioral competency development requires that children be dealt with as people rather than cases, and because the public knows what competent public behavior is and how to assess it, quite independent of claims of accomplishment and standards for accountability invented and promoted by child welfare organizations themselves.

How much longer can child welfare services hold on and hold out? If you ask the defenders of the faith who now populate the leadership positions in the field and who have invested their careers and their trust over the last 30 years and more in building the existing “Process before People” structure, you might get a different answer. The present leadership in the field is showing few signs of an awareness that the stark options facing it are either to turn existing operations upside-down voluntarily, or to be stripped of them by a dissatisfied public intent on redistributing their resources through other channels, including the established social institutions of health, education, justice, commerce, and the family itself, in its search to get more responsive reactions to its interests in child behavioral competency development.

The formula for turning things upside-down is straightforward. The beginning is to adopt behavioral competency-development goals and treat families and children as people rather than cases. This is followed by empirically validating goals in terms acceptable to the public. These assessments will identify service limitations and point the way to modifications needed to enhance goal accomplishment.

Methodological prescriptions and procedural straitjackets that have been the backbone of services in the past will be seen in a new light as barriers and impediments to service and afforded a proper burial. The incentives for making these moves are in place for those organizations swift enough to recognize the benefits to be had. Good ideas and good results will produce public support even in the worst of times. The directions for change and the incentives to undertake it are at hand. The missing ingredient is leadership.



It seems indisputable that a change in public mood is occurring, following a sweeping, albeit belated, awakening to the implications of a changing world marketplace and its long-term implications for the restructuring of the nation’s economy. This restructuring is already well underway and is bringing with it significant changes in the nation’s political perspectives and social fabric. No one knows exactly what the future will bring, but there is plenty of concern about whether the children of the current generation are being adequately prepared.

I don’t know how you can interpret such signs except in terms of a general shift in mood towards behavior competency development. There is no reason to assume that the child welfare field has immunity or can otherwise avoid the impact of this change in public mood. The business of the child welfare field is child behavior. It follows that the impact of this shift on the field will be felt in terms of growing demand for services oriented to behavior competency.

This may not be detectable as yet, in large part because the shift in public mood has been directed mostly at schools and school reform, where there is more evidence of intensifying pressures to turn out more intellectually competent children. Farsighted organizations concerned with the welfare of the nation’s children tend to view them as whole beings rather than as cases or problems and to conceive intellectual and social development as interrelated entities that must be dealt with in an integrated fashion. The schools seem to be the location of choice for getting this job done well.

These organizations, including the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the W.T. Grant Foundation, the Center for the Study of Social Policy, the Bush Center for Child Development at Yale University, and others, all share a view that the schools are the logical place for addressing children as whole people, partly because they offer the advantages of access to nearly all children, enjoy a higher level of credibility and public trust, and do not have to stigmatize children by first labeling them as problems to qualify them for services.

Many of these organizations have designed and pursued the adoption of proposals that involve the integration of child welfare services into school settings. In the state of Washington, this general concept moved from the drawing boards to the streets in a significant way in the fall of 1992 with the passage of a major legislative package aimed at reforming public education that envisions the development of social services centers for students and their families in all public schools in that state.

All these signs suggest the emergence of public demand for child welfare services oriented to behavior competency development. They also indicate that the search is already underway among the public to find an alternative to an unresponsive child welfare field, one willing and able to meet this new demand. At the moment, the schools appear to be the prime candidate.

The signs are unmistakable, as are their implications. Of course reading tea leaves is an inexact science. There is not much going on in the way of changing “business as usual” problem-oriented services towards behavior competency development. This may mean that the field’s leaders don’t see a need to change, or that they do but have yet to figure out how to respond. Either way, the lack of change in the field should not be taken as evidence that change is not needed.


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[Haworth co-indexing entry note]: “Introduction-A View from the Trench,” Thomas, George. Co-published simultaneously in Child & Youth Services (The Haworth Press, Inc.) Vol. 17, No. 1/2, 1994, pp. 1-31; 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. 1-31. 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.