Good Child Welfare Metrics May Help Avert Lawsuits

Request a free consultation

Today’s child welfare administrators, supervisors, and front-line staff need real-time information for real-time concerns. So do the clients, regulators, advocates, and journalists that have an interest in the agency. Without immediate access to relevant data, tragedies—otherwise preventable—may occur. And, as we all know, lawsuits frequently follow tragedies. Child welfare workers need to be able to perceive trends, establish goals, and measure results. A great aid is to use appropriate metrics. Trying to make informed agency decisions without metrics is like driving at night in a dense fog. This article suggests some meaningful metrics that can be easily captured.

  1. Average First Reply Time. Speed may not be a client’s foremost concern, but it is undoubtedly very important. Valid or not, clients easily interpret a slow response from an agency as incompetence and lack of concern. An agency that responds to a call quickly dramatically increases its chances of gaining client satisfaction and addressing a potentially serious situation.
  1. Average Resolution Time. There are countless child welfare activities. Many of them have imposed timelines, either by statute, regulation, or internal policy and procedure manual. For instance, depending on the nature of a report of suspected child abuse or neglect, a child protective service investigator must respond within 24 hours. A supervisor or administrator would benefit greatly by knowing the exact response time of each worker or unit. Yes, an average response of 23 hours is legally acceptable, but this is far from ideal.
  1. Client Satisfaction. Every child welfare administrator wants to know that when someone calls for help that is exactly what they’ll receive. This metric measures the overall satisfaction level of clients and their interactions with the agency. It also helps to pinpoint specific decision points that need improvement. Most important, it measures what matters to the clients (“clients” meaning the public, regulators, or actual clients). If we don’t know what clients want, we can’t measure it.
  1. Team Functioning. Every child welfare agency openly declares its commitment to teamwork. Teams create an atmosphere of mutual support, boosting the confidence of individuals, assisting each person to do his or her best. Good teamwork can reveal talents and leadership skills. Some basic metrics to gauge team functioning might include regular attendance at team meetings and prompt return of phone calls to other team members. Quality teamwork cannot be measured by a single metric; a diverse array is needed. More sophisticated metrics can measure whether individual team members are contributing to the creativity and success of the team.
  1. Human Resources. As an administrator or supervisor, there are a number of simple metrics to look at: absence rate, turnover rate, time it takes to fill a position, and tenure of employees.
  1. Website Effectiveness. After completing an inventory of the agency’s website, it should be easy to identify the specific interests of site visitors. Is there a “comments” section prominently displayed on the website? What are the metrics of those comments? Washington attorney Bryan G. Smith reflects that “there is a common denominator in every lawsuit I have filed against a social service agency on behalf of a foster child who was abused or neglected while in care: The agency had few or no metrics with which to measure its own success or failure and consequently had no internal accountability for those successes and failures.” It is no easy task to come up with conclusive metrics that measure a child welfare agency’s performance, especially because, based on experience and data, child welfare systems and services are constantly being redesigned. Just as an agency’s goals and objectives alter over time, the toolbox of performance metrics to track progress toward those goals will continuously change. In any event, our job is to make sure the way child welfare systems and services are designed in theory is the way they are working in practice. Good child welfare metrics help us monitor, audit, and make tough, informed decisions, and can help us keep the agency out of legal hot water.

Daniel Pollack is a professor at Yeshiva University’s School of Social Work in New York City. He can be reached at; (212) 960-0836.