Positive outcomes for vulnerable children, youth and families are maximized when public child welfare agencies have effective leadership. It is leadership that sets the direction for the agency, defines clearly and explicitly how the organization operates day- to-day and aligns key processes, systems and capacities in support of the vision and culture. Leadership creates commitment, hope and confidence that the agency is able to perform at its best, consistently and over time, and in times of difficulty and crisis.


This guidance is addressed specifically to public child welfare directors and their immediate executive teams. It offers guidance on where leaders and their teams should spend their time and energy, how to assess and align critical key processes (e.g., human resources) to support the strategy of the agency, and how leadership is embedded and experienced throughout an agency.


The strategic work of leadership is to first understand the environment and context within which they are operating. The environment is complex, but need not be overwhelming. There are factors that all organizations hold in common and ones that are particular to government and public child welfare. Listed below are environmental factors that will affect the nature, timing and pace of leadership work identified in this domain.



There are several factors that may affect the ability of leaders to achieve and sustain high performance. Directors may find the agency culture to be one of almost constant crisis due to child deaths or other performance issues. They may also find agencies that do not have in place (or do not honor) those processes needed to support continuous improvement; e.g., strategic plans, performance measures, decision-making protocols. Most critically, directors (with or without prior experience in public child welfare) may believe they have been charged or given license to make wholesale changes; that is, wipe the slate clean and start from scratch. All these conditions require the director to first assess current performance, understand how to use short-term issues in the service of longer-term objectives and to approach change systemically and systematically.


Service Delivery Disparities

Disparities in treatment and services can result in less positive outcomes for different categories of children, particularly children of color. These disparities are often systemic in nature and long standing. They can be from multiple causes including policies that are not written and administered well, lack of resources in particular communities, lack of communication and accountability related to cultural competency and awareness, worker decision-making, etc. How and when a director addresses this issue is as important as what steps are ultimately taken to remedy 

it. Leaders who make the most progress are open about the issue, are rigorous in their analysis using real data, deal with it within a continuous improvement mindset, bring multiple stakeholders to the table including youth and birth parents, and understand fixing the issue will be neither fast nor easy, but that the journey must begin.


Crisis Management

There are a number of crises that can and do occur that invite intensified scrutiny by the public, the media, legislators and others. Responding to these requires the best of leadership precisely when leadership is most in question. Effective leaders are as open as possible about the nature of the issue and how they plan to address it. They accept accountability without blaming. They take pains not only to communicate personally with staff, but ensure that all levels of management are on the same page and sending the same messages. They move from crisis mode to one of continuous 

improvement as rapidly as possible and see that needed changes are, in fact, made. Leaders also help staff get through intensified public scrutiny by creating opportunities to tell the many good stories that reflect the positive impact of our work on children, youth and families.


Multiple Constituencies and Oversight

Public child welfare directors must negotiate often competing and conflicting values, objectives and priorities of the executive and legislative branches, community and advocacy groups, providers and the children, youth and families they are charged to serve. Public child welfare is also subject to significant federal, judicial, legislative and public oversight with each party often believing that their values, objectives and/or obligations should have first consideration. Achieving federal CFSR goals is one of the major challenges facing public child welfare directors. Effective leaders are able to work collaboratively and fashion a practice model that at a minimum gives due consideration to competing perspectives and at best rationalizes them comfortably within the agency’s


Public-Private Partnerships

Public child welfare has appropriately and often effectively turned to the private and/or non-profit sectors to provide a range of services and goods to support positive outcomes for children, youth and families. Effective leaders know these partnerships function at their best when the agency’s “needs and wants” are clearly articulated and supported by data, have staff who are skilled in negotiating large and long-term contracts and have monitoring and corrective action processes in place that are rigorously applied and enforced.



Directors will find a number of stakeholders who care deeply about vulnerable children, youth and families, but public child welfare must be its own best champion. Effective leaders are adept at making their case to different stakeholders, including staff, in different venues and different formats. They are excellent at building coalitions and know when and how to use them to make or support their case.



Large bureaucracies, by their design, can cause staff to feel disaffected unless there is a conscious effort to create and maintain an open, empowered management style. In addition, the very nature of public child welfare work is trauma based and it is not uncommon for staff that deal daily with trauma to feel increasingly traumatized themselves. Effective leaders move quickly to challenge and disrupt this pattern by setting clear work boundaries, providing timely and experienced supervision and fashioning processes that minimize isolation of staff, particularly in decision-making. They insist that the agency remain focused on children, youth and families and not 

on the system. And they insist, as part of expected performance, that their senior managers actively demonstrate an empowered management style throughout the agency.


Organizational Maturity

Individual agencies will be at different levels of maturity in the design of their practice model, sophistication of their support functions and their ability to innovate and manage day-to-day operations. They generally have a “preferred” focus either for getting things done (tasks) or maintaining relationships. That is, they move issues without regard to the perceptions and effect on staff and children, youth and families or conversely, their primary consideration is whether staff and stakeholders will be “happy” about an intended action. Effective leaders know how to assess current maturity and fashion interventions that require appropriate balance between “task 

and relationship” work.



Public child welfare operates within a political context. Its needs, wants and desires are evaluated relative to where they fit within a gubernatorial or legislative agenda which may be in the hands of different parties. While some governors have made children’s issues top priorities, their attention is more often in other policy areas such as transportation, economic development and health care, issues they believe carry larger implications for the overall well-being of their citizens and voters. Effective public child welfare leaders find ways to frame their issues in terms and language that reflects the agenda of the governor or legislature.


Budget and Finance

Public child welfare budgets are a complex mix of federal, state, local and private financing. In addition to maximizing revenue from all sources, directors need to assure governors and legislatures that they are good stewards of tax dollars. Budget requests for continuing or additional resources are made only with evidence of maximum staff productivity, efficient processes and service delivery, non-duplication of services and programs and positive outcomes for children, youth and families. Directors must also prepare for and be responsive to overall budget reductions 

due to econo  ic downturns or changes in budget priorities triggered by new legislation, community advocacy or other environmental conditions.



This Guidance Provides Answers to These and Other Questions:

  • Why is leadership important and how does it affect outcomes for children, youth and families?
  • What is the environment or context that leaders must understand and respond to in order to be effective? 
  • What are the major, overarching functions of leadership and what does the work involve?
  • What are the critical leadership considerations in addressing the issue of disparities in treatment and outcomes of children of color?
  • How are key processes designed and implemented (aligned) to support and reinfor e the agency’s vision and culture?
  • How is effective leadership demonstrated as it cascades through the organization?


Why Is Leadership Important to the Field of Public Child Welfare?

  • Many communities experience ambivalence and ambiguity about the role of public child welfare with calls for removal of children in times of crisis and, conversely, concern that too many children are removed from their families and for too long. Leadership is critical in building community understanding about the role of public child welfare and community trust that minimizes such pendulum swings.
  • Public child welfare is increasingly a credible field as member agencies (individually and collectively) demonstrate that theycan achieve positive outcomes for children, youth and families; do so with staff who are respected for their competence and compassion; and can meet necessary governmental obligations and expectations. Consistent and constant leadership is central to creating and sustaining high performance.
  • Accountability for positive outcomes starts and ends with leadership. Leadership promotes and demands accountability and models the personal discipline expected of staff.
  • Leadership is a specific body of work for which there are identifiable capacities, skills, and experiences. Leadership can be taught, demonstrated and evaluated. It provides the basis for self-reflection and self-assessment. Providing guidance offers new and tenured directors and their executive teams opportunity to learn from a growing body of leadership knowledge and research and to progress more rapidly in their leadership ability.
  • Leadership is critical to building and maintaining effective relationships with a wide range of stakeholders. Leadership understands achieving positive outcomes for children, youth and families requires working with a range of stakeholderswhich share a common vision, commitment and investment.

How Will Outcomes Be Achieved For and With Children, Youth and Families?

  • Leadership is the act of influencing and driving the choices and actions of an organization to achieve positive outcomes for vulnerable children, youth and families.
  • Leadership sets the vision and inspires staff to learn together and take actions to create a shared vision. It examines and, where necessary, challenges long held beliefs and assumptions. It supports ongoing efforts that are achieving positive outcomes and simultaneously seeks inventive and innovative ways to continuously improve performance.
  • Leadership ensures equity, fairness and due process throughout the organization and addresses disparate treatment in policies, practices, and procedures that negatively affect outcomes for children, youth and families. Leadership models the skills, values and behaviors that inspire creativity, energy and investment.
  • Leadership operates with a continuous improvement mindset and encourages and expects staff to take risks necessary to grow and develop.
  • Leadership operates with both a short and long-term view; it speaks with authority and integrity even in the midst of crisis and in times of uncertainty.
  • Leadership understands the complexity of the organization and what it takes to achieve results. Sound management practices are respected and tools and processes are well aligned with the vision.
  • Leadership understands and respects the many achievements of the agency and builds on them.
  • Leadership garners and maximizes resources and support from a range of private and public agencies, reinforcing that public child welfare agencies “cannot go it alone.”
  • Leadership allocates resources (e.g., money, staff, and time) in support of the strategic goals of the organization and that maximize productivity and performance. Leadership uses a range of contracting options, as appropriate, and expects all service delivery to meet the same high standards.

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