How do we move past crisis mode and develop policies to help our agency thrive?

Few headlines evoke more emotion than harm inflicted upon an innocent child. The reaction is amplified exponentially when this harm is perpetrated by a caregiver and results in a child’s death. In these instances, the public demands that someone be held responsible and that the system be immediately fixed to prevent another death. As a result, politicians, policymakers, and agency leaders are under tremendous pressure to respond with an immediate plan for change. Such tragic events are cause for reflection and can serve as the catalyst for needed reform. Yet they can also trigger short-sighted responses that have no lasting, positive effects or that undermine longer-term reform efforts that have been working. Too often, child welfare policies are hastily crafted as a reactive approach to managing a crisis, and they end up hindering rather than strengthening the programs and practices we know work for children and families.

Child welfare leaders can develop a crisis-driven policy response to keep children safe and healthy in permanent families by strengthening current programs and practices. State and local policymakers can improve child welfare by being strategic about the policies they pass and the programs they fund during a crisis. But this requires pausing, even in the rush to respond, to create policies that do not have unintended negative effects. These policies should rely on analysis of agency data and continuous quality improvement (CQI) strategies, align with current research evidence, and consider workload management. Child welfare leaders who partner with their executive, judicial, and legislative branches are better positioned to determine which policies work best for families based on the specific needs in their jurisdiction.

During a crisis, you can develop policy to help your agency thrive by adopting the following activities and practices:

Analyze agency data and use CQI strategies

CQI strategies rely on the analysis of agency data to inform decision-making for practice and performance improvement. As child welfare agencies increasingly encourage a continuous learning environment — one that is supported by all levels of staff and emphasizes data-driven decision-making — it is critical that CQI strategies be preserved during a crisis1,2 to identify systemic issues that led to the watershed moment. The desire to quickly “solve” the problem may lead to the implementation of policies and practices that address individual performance and are ineffective in preventing a similar crisis. To counter this, ensuring that analyses of agency data inform decisions about necessary policy reforms is crucial.

Use current research evidence

After you have a better understanding of the systemic issues in your jurisdiction, whenever possible, use research evidence to identify interventions that have been shown to be effective in achieving your desired outcomes.1,3 Selecting and implementing a policy or practice that is grounded in research evidence has a greater likelihood of improving your system’s performance than a policy or practice with limited or no research evidence. Implementing policies and practices that are widely known (although their evidence of effectiveness may be limited) or that have been shown to work in another jurisdiction with a different population can be tempting. However, it is important to identify policies or practices that will address the specific needs of your jurisdiction.

Manage the workload

As decisions are made about what policies and practices to implement during a crisis, attention should be paid to staff workload. Managing the workload is important to ensure that front-line staff are clear on agency priorities and able to achieve their assigned duties.1,2 This may mean postponing or eliminating another policy. When old policies are not eliminated or new policies are not effectively communicated by leadership, confusion and misunderstanding across the agency can result. In some situations, staff may be unaware of the new policies and continue to make important decisions based on outdated information. In other situations, too many changes too quickly may create a sense of “policy fatigue,” with staff ultimately ignoring the most recently adopted policy initiatives in favor of those that are more familiar.

Conversely, an overwhelming number of policies can lead to a compliance mentality across the agency. This often results in staff focused on meeting rigid policy requirements without giving equal attention to how well they perform the work and whether their decisions, interventions, and services are best for the specific children and families they are serving over the long term.

Effectively responding to policy fatigue and a compliance mentality may include focusing on outcomes over policies, streamlining current policies, empowering staff to become involved in the crafting of new policies, and creating an effective communication plan for dissemination and implementation.


A child fatality due to maltreatment can be an opportunity to spark significant shifts within an agency. The aspiration to prevent a similar crisis demands swift action, but taking time to pause, analyze the data, use research evidence, and manage the workload will position your agency to make informed policy decisions that are less likely to have unintended, negative effects.


1 Pecora, P. (2017). Evidence-based and promising intervention for preventing child fatalities and severe child injuries related to child maltreatment. Upbring. Retrieved from
2 Turnell, A., Munro, E., & Murphy, T. (2013). Soft is hardest: Leading for learning in child protections services following a child fatality. Child Welfare, 92(2), 199–216.
3 Sheldon-Sherman, J., Wilson, D. & Smith, S. (2013). Extent and nature of child maltreatment-related fatalities: Implications for policy and practice. Child Welfare, 92(2), 41–58.

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