Posted Wednesday, July 24, 2019 by Rich Bowlen

Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway—5 Ideas to Create Meaningful Change in Child Welfare

“There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long-range risks of comfortable inaction.” 
— John F. Kennedy

Life is a series of calculated risks and decisions. We know it pays off to take risks to advance our professional and personal lives, so let me ask you a few questions: why aren’t we doing the same for the children who rely on us? Why are we so hesitant to take bold action on behalf of innocent kids enduring some of life’s most horrific atrocities?

I’ll tell you why: because it’s scary to think about leaving our comfort zones and taking that first step in a different, uncharted direction or to think about accepting ownership if something goes wrong.

Should we sit back and accept the results of doing the same exact thing that’s been done in the past? Should we let what we have come to recognize as a broken system continue until the next generation inherits the problem?

07-23-19 Rich Bowlen 1The way I see it, our biggest risk is not taking a chance.

Our only choice is to embrace risk and face our fears head on (specifically relating to technology modernization and innovation).

There’s never going to be a perfect time to launch a new initiative, adopt a new technology, re-write an age-old policy, or turn a big idea into action. It’s never going to be easy to take that leap of faith.

The longer we wait to make the first move, the longer vulnerable children and families are missing out on the safety, stability, and well-being we’ve promised to help them achieve.



Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting we throw everything we know out the window and suddenly start taking all sorts of unnecessary risks. That would be counterproductive. What I am saying is we must do different—not necessarily anything drastic or too disruptive, but something revolutionary nonetheless.It's possible

Think about it: we ask those serving on the front lines to get in touch with the root cause of each child or family’s problems, but the data systems we give them to manage and find this information don’t know how to ask for it.

What they need is an understanding of the child’s whole story, especially how and why they got here, but what they get instead is data entered within the last 15-30 days in order to respond to a mandate.

Families don’t have time to wait, so the worker just has to get creative and figure it out. It should be our job to help them, not make things harder.

There are opportunities right in front of us to do the things that children who have endured horrific forms of abuse and maltreatment are counting on us to do.

But, simply updating our existing systems and processes to meet new rules and requirements is not enough. Allowing conversations and debates about our needs and wants to go on for years before we take action is not enough. To me, that’s all just paving the proverbial cow path.



So, what can we do? If we want to create meaningful change, we have to break the mold. Specifically, these five things need to happen (in no particular order):

1. Let frontline workers take the wheel.

Prioritize your workers. These are the people who spend every day interacting in the homes of families, serving in court rooms, hospitals, schools, or anywhere else, and their voices deserve to be heard.

Remember: workers are the expert on the children and families they serve. No one else can explain how or why they do what they do, why it’s important to do it that way, or what they’re hoping to achieve in each unique situation.  Encourage them to create “the way.”

Don’t ask them how to fix what’s broken. Just ask how they want to do what they do, how they weigh the decisions they make, and what tools can help ease their burden. And, here’s the most important part, just listen!


2. Start with need instead of policy.

Despite constantly asking for bold, new, innovative ways to protect and strengthen vulnerable children and families, we still tend to fall back on the same ways we’ve always done things for the past 25 years.

We know things need to change, but we still allow ourselves to be restrained by outdated processes and policies. That way, even if bad things happen, we at least have it documented that we followed procedure.

There are children who miss out on permanency and stability because policy dictates we develop a list of 20 questions that will give us insight to the next 20 questions and so on. We tend to focus on why we can’t do certain things, instead of what’s possible that wasn’t before.

We have to start thinking more broadly: what do we really need? How do we get truly “best-of-breed” technology in front of the children, families, and workers who deserve it?  


3. Learn from local entities.

Every state, county, municipality, and agency is unique. Every community presents its own set of strengths and challenges. The flexibility described in today’s CCWIS guidelines should reflect the needs of local, ground-level service delivery.

Allow local entities to share what works, or doesn’t work, for them. Most importantly, value honest feedback from these local entities when they say something is not working. (That doesn’t mean it’s totally or completely the wrong thing, but it is critically important to inform what is the right thing.) 

Our communities can see and identify trends long before the “data” tells us it is so. Frontline workers and local agencies begin to see the sicknesses developing in households, neighborhoods and zip codes long before the data tells us it’s a problem. (Think about the opioid epidemic here: we knew anecdotally that it was a problem long before any official data confirmed it.)

Encourage this group serving at the child welfare “ground zero” to describe their needs and inform what happens at the state or federal level so they can best treat the next epidemic.


4. Build solutions around your workers, instead of forcing them to work around your solutions.

You don’t need technology to better your workers; they’re already pretty amazing. What you do need is better technology to leverage and improve the work that’s already being done.

Often, workers cite their frustration, inability to deliver quality service, and reason for leaving on the fact that the current processes and tools we provide to “help” do their job makes it harder. I can’t help but to think that is because someone, somewhere, in some office decided what they thought was best after taking a look at a spreadsheet that provided only a retrospective look back. 

Understanding what each worker is facing in the moment, in every unique situation, is critical to promoting the safety and well-being of children. Technology should receive its most critical evaluation around how and why it brings value to the way workers build and develop trusted, meaningful and engaged relationships with children and caregivers.


5. Allow what’s provided today to influence tomorrow.

Allow trends and emerging technology to help define and help solve the next problem instead of just guessing what it might be. A great example here can be found in the disproportionality that workers have experienced in child welfare and juvenile justice for years.

Keep your mind open and allow that to influence how you understand families. Imagine what’s possible, what could be done that you haven’t tried before, and begin exploring what needs to be done to turn those ideas into reality.



The way I see it, there are two fundamental approaches to this work. On one side, we take risks, embrace the potential for failure, and explore every opportunity to make a dent in the universe, allowing nothing to get in our way. On the other, there’s a place for staying grounded in security, stability, and comfort.

To a certain extent, we need both. However, now is not the time for us to play it safe.

07-23-19 Rich Bowlen 2There are already thousands of children, adults, and families who don’t have days, months, or years to wait for us to act. They need our help now.

When I first got started as a child welfare worker, my supervisor taught me two important rules:

  1. First, do no additional harm.
  2. The best way you can help any child is to fully understand their entire story.

It’s been 29 years since I learned these rules, in which time my role has evolved from agency worker, manager, and then director … to advocate and evangelist. Plenty has changed, but these words still hold. And quite frankly, they should be a concern to each and every child welfare decision maker reading this.

Big chance, big changeBecause despite decades of conversations and talking about what should and could be (to reiterate: I’m talking specifically about technology modernization and innovation here), we’re still waiting to make a big and bold move.

We’re still doing the same things we always have—in some cases, nothing at all—and to me, it’s causing the additional harm that we’re so desperately trying to avoid.

So, my challenge to you today (or this week, this month, or even just at your next meeting!) is to step outside your comfort zone. Embrace risk. Do something that scares you.

Stop talking about what could be, what should be, and start taking steps to make it happen. In fact, be the loudest voice in the room demanding what the “new way” should be—and then do it.

Don’t let our indecision, our fear of the unknown, stand in the way of the children waiting for our help. Don’t let conforming to past processes or policies stand in the way of doing what’s best for our caseworkers and the families they’re serving. They ALL deserve more, and it’s time we give it to them.

Rich Bowlen’s goal is and always has been to give his very best day in and day out to do the most good for the most kids. As vice president/evangelist for child welfare, Rich serves as our national lead and advocate for child welfare and protective services. He’s the connector between Northwoods' employees and our child welfare partners, including agencies, advocacy groups, policymakers, court systems, state and local legislators, national industry leaders, and more.


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