“How do we get case workers to change their behaviors?” This was the question posed by Bryan Samuels, Commissioner of the federal Administration on Children, Youth, and Families. Myself and a colleague were meeting with him to discuss the importance of keeping siblings connected in foster care. I have to admit, it took me off guard. We had a list of changes we wanted to see; stronger policies specifically addressing sibling connections, funding to support sibling placements and support programs, opportunities to speak with child welfare administrators about the importance of sibling relationships during federally sponsored conferences. I don’t recall how I answered Mr. Samuels during that meeting, but after a few days and some additional thought, I sent a follow-up letter in response to the query. The written response was, no doubt, a better articulation of my thoughts on how to change case worker behaviors.
The meeting and the question prompted me to think back to my days of working for a public agency. I remember well the difficulty in getting case workers ‘on-board’ with policy changes or even new programs and resources. I learned that changing a policy did not always translate into changes in behaviors, or when it did, it often was an uphill battle.
The bottom line is, the place where change needed to occur was at the practice level, the front line, with the case workers who had daily contact with vulnerable children and families. It’s a lesson I re-learn repeatedly. Recently I was quite disappointed to learn that a state that (I thought) had a great policy around sibling placements saw little improvement in what happened ‘on the ground’…the policy was, for the most part, ignored.
“They can say what they want, but we’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing.” Every supervisor, manager, and administrator that I know has either heard that statement or knows it has been said, thought, or felt behind their backs. Policies change, but people keep doing things the old way, or the way they think things should be done. New programs would become available, and one can almost see the emotional defenses rising.
Is it a trust issue? Is there a lack of trust in the law-makers and administrators that make the laws and policies? In some cases, perhaps. Is it resistance to change in general? In some cases, yes.
So what does it take to change behaviors at the practice level? One simple element needs to be in place. People need to believe that the change should happen.
The million dollar question really is not how to get people to change their behaviors but how to get them to believe they need to change their behaviors. Policies, laws, regulations; none of these can change beliefs. Depending on the consequences, they may result in behavioral adjustments. But if a person does not believe they are necessary or applicable, they are likely to either ignore, or at best, find a way to ‘work around’ them. Just ask someone driving drunk if they know about the laws regarding this behavior. Of course they do. But 9 times out of 10, they would say that they do not believe they are impaired, hence the law is not applicable to their situation.
The question Mr. Samuels really wanted answered (whether he knew it or not) was how to get case workers to believe they should change their approach to vulnerable children and their siblings. My response to that….I’ll share in the next blog post.