I’ve alluded to my ‘former life’ a few times over the years; I guess its time to come clean and openly share it….yes, I used to treat research and data with disdain. I was known to bemoan the researchers who sat in their century old offices at some university, pouring over old records to find support for their theory de’jour. Or meticulously selecting groups of perfect children with no history of emotional problems, matched for age and abuse history to another group of severely challenged children, to demonstrate that placement stability in a family setting really is the most vital element in a child’s overall growth and development, or ultimately to successfully achieving permanency. Meanwhile, I would smugly mutter under my breath, ‘yeah, sure, you say that now but YOU spend 30 days dealing with Johny Doe and his dirt-eating, feces-hurling, animal-torturing behaviors and then tell me you can convince this exemplary foster parent to keep Johny forever!’. And if another child psychologist advises our experienced foster parent that all that is needed to manage a child’s behavior is to develop a behavioral chart with a reward system, well, I may have to give up this profession entirely and get a license to drive the public transit bus.
Oh my, how easily I slipped into my former life as a caseworker. Seriously though, I am guilty of, at one point in my career, believing that research and data had little to offer me as a person working ‘in the field’. I was more inclined to believe the people I respected–my peers who were doing this difficult work on a daily basis.
What changed, you ask? I don’t know that I can point to any one thing but rather a series of experiences. I suspect part of the shift is a generational, or perhaps better described as an access issue. When I was a case worker, there was little data available, let alone comparative data. I won’t go so far as to say there was not research available, because I know it was there. But it was not readily accessible and child welfare systems tended *not* to reward case workers (or administrators) for reviewing research. Now there are websites, listservs, dashboards, and an array of publications sharing critical data on children and families. Of course, the degree to which this is integrated into practice varies by jurisdiction. And I’ve rarely seen instances where there is any workplace incentive for people in the field to routinely examine data or research findings.
Another change near the top of the list would be participation in the Child and Family Service Reviews. It really wasn’t the process so much as it was talking to children and families about their experiences in the foster care system and getting a first-hand glimpse into promising strategies to improve outcomes. The opportunity to see numbers regarding outcomes presented by states/jurisdictions combined with making the connection to individual children and families is very compelling.
Tipping the scales further was reading the book, From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. In my opinion, this may be one of the greatest books of all time and ought to be required reading for every elected official and law-maker. If there was any doubt about the importance of research in making policy decisions and in the importance of addressing the needs of young children and their parents, this book quite clearly explains why we need to pay attention to the development of young children, not just on an individual level but for the benefit of society as a whole.
A few years after reading it the first time (and yes, I’ve read it more than once), I had the opportunity to interview advocates in early childhood who successfully garnered financial support for programs critical to child development, in large part because of this book. That second part of the equation really drove home for me the value of data, especially considering that much of my career has been spent trying to do too much with too little resources and experiencing failures with life-long and often multi-generational consequences.
The increased attention to evidence-based practices played a role in my transformation as well. When I started as a caseworker, no one was talking about evidence-based practices. Rather, we had pilot programs that generally lasted for 1-3 years and disappeared when funding ended or became integrated into our array of services available. Either way, we rarely heard about the rate of success or failure, beyond the water-cooler conversations about this case with a happy ending or that case that was a abysmal failure.
I have now come to believe this linkage between practice and data is critical. But it really goes beyond availability and passive access. Integration into practice must occur in order for child welfare to improve outcomes. [And I hope it goes without saying that integration into legislation and policy decisions is essential.] I have often joked that ‘if I knew then, what I know now, I could be a great social worker’. I whole-heartedly believe this to be true. It’s not that I was a ‘bad’ social worker (at least not according to my supervisors); I was committed to doing the ‘right thing’ for the children and families on my caseload. But if I had the data and information that I have now, I think the approach to my work would have been different, would have been better. I might have lobbied more passionately for advanced training for foster parents to minimize placements in group care. And I might have been less likely to settle for a placement because it was the only bed available; instead insisting on taking the time to track down relatives or expedite the licensing of the child’s former teacher who is willing to provide a home.
I have heard that the ‘younger generation’ or ‘Gen Y’ is much more focused on feedback and data then previous generations. If this is correct, we should be able to look forward to a new energy joining the child welfare workforce. The challenge will be to keep this group engaged by providing the access to critical information needed. The other challenge is to package information and find ways to meaningfully integrate it into the work of those directly serving children and families. This ‘research to practice’ issues has proven to be particularly difficult. We are doing better with getting information to administrators, IMO, but we are a long way from success in connecting the dots when it comes to day-to-day practice. I believe this is true, in part, because it hasn’t been a priority or in many cases, even a possibility given the juggling act required by child welfare caseworkers. I think it is time to make it a priority.