Nearly 25 Years Later, CRC Continues Its Mission to Improve Child Welfare Systems

Nearly 25 Years Later, CRC Continues Its Mission to Improve Child Welfare Systems

July 26, 2017 | Phil Decter, Interim Director of Child Welfare


Eight years ago, I left my home in Boston on a plane bound for San Diego, California. I had worked as a social worker with children, youth, and families in a variety of settings for almost 20 years. I trained and coached social workers for more than 10 of those years. I did many other types of work in this field as well, but what I was heading toward felt very different.

The County of San Diego Child Welfare Services had asked Raelene Freitag, then director of the NCCD Children’s Research Center (CRC), to find someone to help them with a project. They wanted to bring together NCCD’s evidence-based Structured Decision Making® (SDM) assessments with a solution-focused, partnership-based practice for the clients and communities they served. Raelene told them about similar work a group of colleagues and I were trying to do in Massachusetts, and they wanted to learn more.

Taking that trip to San Diego was an honor, and I continue to feel that way as I work with other child welfare organizations around the globe. Wherever NCCD goes to support child welfare system improvement, I find caring and compassionate staff who give more of themselves than anyone could expect. I find innovative leaders looking to make a difference and researchers and analysts committed to learning from practice. Committed professionals everywhere ask many of the same questions: How do we better serve families? How do we improve their outcomes?

Sometimes I think of child welfare as a coin with two sides, each side seemingly opposed to the other yet somehow existing together. Does this work stand more for prevention or punishment? Is it accomplished primarily through therapy or case management? Is it more art or science (or both!)? Does it more often lead to good outcomes and transformation or unnecessary social control and government overreach?

Child welfare workers have a golden opportunity to work with individuals and families after an adverse event and before the situation gets worse—to be partners for sustained change in safety, permanency, and well-being. At its best, the field has an amazing and critically important role to play. And child welfare is, simultaneously and far too often, a field where well-intentioned people sometimes move far too blindly and quickly (or slowly) with fear, bias, and chaotic bureaucratic processes driving more of practice than they should.

For nearly 25 years CRC has partnered with child welfare agencies to help address these concerns. As developers of the SDM system for child welfare, we are committed to:

  • Identifying critical decision points that agencies, workers, and families face every day;
  • Building tools to help make those decisions in consistent, accurate, equitable, and useful ways;
  • Training and coaching about how to do this work in partnership with clients;
  • Addressing personal and systemic bias; and
  • Collecting data about what we do and helping everyone in an organization to use and learn from that data.

My role at NCCD has changed over the years from consultant, to employee, to associate director, to my latest post as interim director of child welfare. I accepted my new position much like I got on that plane to San Diego: with honor, excitement, and definitely a little apprehension. Doing well in this field is important. The stakes are high.

I stand with a group of committed and brilliant researchers; analysts; data system designers; communications and administrative staff; and, most importantly to me, a team of inspired program staff that works directly with child welfare agencies for system improvement. All of us work toward the same goal: a just and well-functioning child welfare system of which we can be proud. I’m grateful to know I’m not alone, and we at CRC are grateful and excited to continue this journey.