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Travels in the Trench Between 

Child Welfare Theory and Practice


Installment 2



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.

Electronic Editor’s Note: This is the end of the second electronic installment. In the next installment, which begins Chapter 2, the discussion will be about “Charity and Justice” as a driving force in Child Welfare Policy. The author asks:



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.

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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.