The Munro Report on Child Protection

(Originally published February 2011)

 Eileen Munro is a distinguished scholar in the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is best known in this country for her studies of factors contributing to child and neglect related fatalities and for her advocacy of a systems approach to analyzing public agency failures to prevent child deaths on open/ recently open child welfare cases. She has also written outstanding articles on risk assessment and, more recently, on organizational development and organizational learning. She is the author of Effective Child Protection (2002), a book that attempts to explain how reflective practitioners can combine analytical reasoning and intuitive skills in working with children and families. Munro has a background in philosophy of science. She is widely read and learned in decision making theory and naturalistic studies of decision making, systems theory, evidence based practice and organizational development, as well as child welfare research. Munro is also balanced and astute, and she has an exceptional ability to recognize the best thinking of other scholars, and to value the insights of practitioners and of children and parents served by child welfare systems.

 

In June 2010, a British MP, Michael Gove, asked Munro to conduct an independent review of child protection in England. In the Introduction to Part One of her report, Munro comments that the English child protection system has been repeatedly studied, often following high profile child deaths that elicited public outrage; and these studies have produced a large body of well informed and well intentioned recommendations for reform. Why undertake more of the same?

Munro writes that “The problem is that previous reforms have not led to the expected improvements in frontline practice. Moreover, there is a substantial body of evidence indicating that past reforms are creating new, unforeseen complications.”

 

Everything that Munro has to say about the context of reviews of child protection policies and practice in England applies to most state and large city/ county child welfare systems in the U.S. These systems have been exhaustively studied over a period of decades by well informed committees, advocacy groups, consultants and scholars, sometimes in the aftermath of high profile deaths but also at other times for a variety of purposes. These studies have not been reluctant to recommend a host of specific reforms, and comprehensive and costly reform agendas have often been implemented in response to a review’s recommendations. In a number of cities and states, this process has been repeated once or twice a decade. Along with Eileen Munro, “it is therefore important to think carefully before producing more recommendations for change.”

 

Munro’s view (with which I strongly concur) is that most reform initiatives have added to agencies’ prescriptive frameworks (i.e., policies and procedures) in order to standardize practice and guarantee a rudimentary level of skilled service delivery. Munro asserts that “Earlier reforms … have tended to focus on technical solutions – increasing rules, more detailed procedures, more use of ICT (computer systems) – while giving less attention to the skills to engage with families, the expertise to bring about enduring improvements in parenting behavior, and the organizational support that enables social workers … to manage the emotional dimension of the work without it harming their judgment or well- being. A significant consequence of the practice and guidance imbalance has been the increasing alienation of the workforce …”

 

 Munro comments that the policy manual for multi- agency collaboration in England has expanded from 7 pages in 1974 to 390 pages in 2010 and “makes reference to ten other pieces of supplementary guidance that provide another 424 pages.” Policy and practice manuals in agencies with top- down bureaucratic cultures steadily expand to the point where even agency veterans are often poorly informed about many agency policies. Managers of agencies with ever increasing prescriptive frameworks tend to be far more interested in compliance with regulations “than to providing a personalized service that matches the variety of needs of children and young people,” or professional expertise and knowledge, local innovation and initiative or adaptive and timely adaptive learning at the caseworker, unit and office level. Munro believes that organizations managed on this compliance model are undermining the professional development of their staff (by limiting the scope of professional judgment and placing little importance on research and knowledge unless embedded in policy frameworks), and driving able people out of the child welfare work force.   

 

Munro is also concerned about “a system that is over–bureaucratized and focused on meeting targets, which reduce the capacity of social workers to spend time with children and young people.” Munro comments on meeting with a group of frontline workers who explained “how senior managers made all the right kind of comments about quality work time, time for critical reflection, and for professional supervision. But they said these things in a quiet voice; they spoke loudly about the need to meet performance indicators and followed this up with e – mails to check that they were being met.”  Munro does not mention that a managerial emphasis on performance indicators and performance targets is likely to lead to gaming of the measures and even outright fraud, tendencies that over time undermine the reliability of the measures and create a fundamental uncertainty about whether organizations are fulfilling their mission. Standardized test scores in a high stakes testing environment are likely to become increasingly unreliable indicators of children’s educational achievement. Maltreatment recurrence rates in child welfare agencies under intense public scrutiny and media scrutiny will not be reliable indicators of child safety for long, if they ever were.

 

Munro is also concerned that a managerial emphasis on quantitative indicators “has fostered a view that the more important part of social work is carried out on a computer” instead of in relationships with children and parents. She is especially concerned that there has been so little importance given to understanding children’s experiences and children’s views of their family and their situation. “The focus of reforms, she states, has been on providing detailed assessment forms, telling the social worker what data about families to collect and, how quickly to collect it.” She believes that caseworkers spend too little time with children and that in case records “they tended to convey only narrowly defined and negative aspects of the children’s identities, with many descriptions standardized and replicated between reports.” Somehow, Munro believes, an interest in children’s experiences and children’s stories becomes an afterthought when caseworkers and supervisors are most concerned with completing standardized assessment forms within prescribed time frames and complying with a myriad of procedural rules, few of which have anything to do with understanding children’s perspectives. In addition, Munro comments on studies that “have suggested that social workers …draw on a fairly narrow interpretation of theory when representing children’s needs, and provided rather brief and formulaic descriptions of children in which children’s own interpretation of their situation have rarely been reported.”

In agencies managed through highly prescriptive policy frameworks, performance targets and quality assurance inspection systems focused on compliance, the response to Munro’s critique regarding child protection staff losing sight of children’s experience would usually be to develop new policies requiring that new assessment tools designed to describe children’s experiences and perspectives be completed with designated time frames. Caseworkers and supervisors would then be mandated to complete a day or two of training on communicating with children and drawing out their perspectives (probably delivered by a trainer who is not a scholar in the subject), perhaps to be followed by interviewing a child in the presence of a coach; and a quality assurance unit would track the degree of compliance with these requirements in units and offices. Unit and office data might be gathered and circulated comparing compliance rates. There would then be a high degree of compliance with the new policies until other concerns and another agenda captured the attention of managers and inspectors at which point compliance would become more haphazard and caseworker skills would diminish. This is how public child welfare agencies are managed in the U.S. and other English speaking countries. More of the same is not likely to lead to dramatic improvements in agencies’ performance.

 

Munro is interested in developing adaptive learning organizations which encourage and support the professional development of their staff and which value research and innovation, local initiatives to improve services and more flexible use of data systems to map children’s journeys through child welfare systems. To understand how organizations learn, she employs concepts from systems theory such as “double loop learning” that focuses “not only on whether we are doing things right but whether we are doing the right thing.” Munro believes that for child welfare organizations to learn more effectively, prescriptive frameworks must be relaxed and the scope of practitioners’ professional judgment increased. Workloads must be reasonable and a risk aversive ‘culture of blame’ radically altered. Furthermore, there needs to be the time and opportunity for innovation at the unit and office level and the means to carefully evaluate results. Ways of spreading the use of successful innovations must be developed without always or even usually depending on prescriptive frameworks that may take years to implement and even longer to undo when innovations outlive their usefulness.

 

The culture to support organizational learning and workforce development go hand in hand. A large percentage – perhaps most --  caseworkers enter child welfare jobs without a strong professional commitment to child welfare and with significant gaps in training and education; this is even true of MSWs who graduate from Child Welfare Training and Advancement Programs. This is one reason child welfare agencies are managed through prescriptive frameworks that seek to limit caseworker discretion in decision making to a minimum, i.e., most newly hired staff do not begin work with a high level of professional preparation. Furthermore, child protection and other child welfare positions place extreme demands on caseworkers who are charged with helping children in families with substance abuse, mental health and DV issues, not to mention (in many cases) severe cognitive impairments, family conflict, long term and severe poverty and children’s developmental challenges. To cope with job demands, practitioners need to assimilate large amounts of information and theory about a wide variety of subjects, and work effectively with experts and agencies that serve troubled families. It is unreasonable to expect that a few weeks of basic training and ever expanding manuals of policies and procedures can adequately prepare (and guide) the work force to cope with the complex and challenging situations they face.

 

Munro questions whether a practice model in which many troubled children and families with a variety of needs are assigned to a caseworker who (hopefully) has first rate supervision from   someone experienced in child welfare can ever be adequate. It appears that she is considering recommending that child protection caseworkers work with inter – agency teams that hold cases in common. Nevertheless, the demands of child welfare are such that practitioners need to be constantly educating themselves, not just attending training programs, and be able to reflect critically and appreciatively on their own experiences and the experiences of their peers.       

The alternative is to “dumb down” and simplify child protection by reducing decision making to “if a, do b…” without reflecting on the reasons for rules or exceptional situations that require ignoring or breaking rules. The child welfare organizations that I worked for functioned effectively only when conscientious and thoughtful practitioners figured out when to follow rules and when to ignore or find ways around them, a process that frequently put them at risk in compliance oriented environments. When bureaucracies work, it is because a fair number of knowledgeable and committed staff consistently behave in non – bureaucratic ways, a mind- set and set of skills difficult to transmit in training programs.

 

Munro’s programmatic commitments will be familiar to managers, practitioners and advocates in this country: bigger investments in prevention and early intervention, an emphasis on engagement skills and forming partnerships with parents, the use of assessment tools as an aid to, not a substitute for professional judgment, reduction of documentation requirements, an end to planned inspections (such as the CFSRs), use of both a core set of quantitative data and qualitative information that conveys a plausible narrative of children’s experiences.  Many of her recommendations have been frequently included in reviews of child welfare practice in both England and the U.S.. What is different in Munro’s review is her understanding that the way public child welfare agencies are being managed systematically undermines the prospects for organizational learning; and that reform initiatives having a chance of changing organizational cultures must adopt a new managerial paradigm and make new and different kind of investments in their workforces’ professional development.

 

David Finkelhor is an American scholar who, more than most of his peers, has recognized the necessity of improving the child protection workforce. Finkelhor has recommended transforming CPS into an elite well prepared service, with an ethos of excellence. However, there is a distinct possibility that investing in child protection but not in the specialized casework positions that take hand- offs from CPS units would create a high status, better educated and better paid CPS workforce and a lower status, less well educated and poorly paid child welfare workforce. This would not be a desirable development, nor would it accurately reflect the actual difficulties of different child welfare responsibilities. Case management in voluntary services units or permanent planning units is every bit as demanding as CPS investigations.

 

A better idea is to require newly hired caseworkers in child protection and child welfare (after the first year of service) to develop a specialized competency in substance abuse, mental health, DV, developmental disabilities, child development, adolescent services or Indian child welfare; and to increase salaries by 5-10% to recognize certification of valuable specialized knowledge and skills. Public agencies should pay the cost of certification programs as a means of developing a highly skilled workforce. In addition, periodic breaks from new assignments should become a standard approach to taking care of practitioners.

A new era of reform should be concerned first and foremost with the quality of the child welfare workforce and its care and feeding, and with creating organizational environments in which highly committed professionals will want to spend a career.

 

References

 

Finkelhor, David, Child Victimization: Violence, Crime, and Abuse in the Lives of Young People, Oxford University Press 2008.

 

Munro, Eileen, The Munro Review of Child Protection, Part One: A Systems Analysis, 2010 available at www.education.gov.uk

 

Munro, Eileen, The Munro Review of Child Protection, Interim Report: The Child’s Journey, 2011, available at www.education.gov.uk

  

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