Guest author Stacey Steinbach, licensed Signs of Safety trainer, consultant, and Children’s Service Supervisor with the Yellow Medicine County Family Services, shares her experiences and understanding of the supervisor competency of Decision Making. The Minnesota Child Welfare Practice Framework defines these competencies as reaching sound conclusions and making decisive, timely decisions with the consideration of information, available data, flexibility, and short and long-term goals; giving clear directions and communicating them effectively in a timely manner.
As I review and reflect on the core supervision competencies in child welfare, the area that drives me to step out of my comfort zone is Decision Making. Consider the following questions: How many decisions per day are supervisors asked to make or review? What consequences could and do result from these decisions? How often do we take the time to talk or think about how we make these decisions? How do we create an environment where we become aware of our own bias and judgment in each decision made? Considering these questions makes it clear how impactful and difficult it is to make decisions within child welfare. These decisions can have dire consequences for generations that impact every human being that comes under the microscope of child welfare. Yet our system rarely thinks or talks about these questions or how and why we make our decisions.
In the child welfare system, practitioners and supervisors find themselves in an anxiety-ridden, fast-paced, responsive environment that pushes us to make immediate decisions. In the book “Thinking Fast and Slow”, the author Daniel Kahneman explains the two decision making systems in our brains. The first, and most often utilized, is the automatic or intuitive decision-making system, also referred to as “fast thinking.” The majority of decisions in our daily life are made in this manner, such as this morning when I decided where I would buy my favorite tea latte. This is the kind of decision that we don’t stop and think about; we just do it. However, when our brain uses this automatic process to make decisions, we subconsciously base these decisions on our feelings, biases, beliefs, morals, and judgments. This leaves us susceptible to making errors. This is particularly true when we are making these types of decisions in our child welfare practice that are driven by responding to worrisome, complex situations as quickly as the child protection system requires. Frankly, this is a recipe for disaster for children and families. When making decisions about human lives, we cannot, as individuals or as a system, rely on making decisions in this “fast thinking” way.
Other research related to decision making has shown the importance of keeping an open mind to shield us from errors in decision making. Professor Eileen Monroe from the London School of Economics has said that the single most important factor in minimizing error in child protection cases is a willingness to admit that you might be wrong. I have also heard Andrew Turnell, co-creator of the Signs of Safety, reflect that the minute child welfare workers think they know the answer, they should take a Tylenol and lie down. In daily life, judgements are made about other human beings within the first seven seconds. In child welfare, we make judgments about situations just as quickly and then, according to Kahneman and Monroe, we look for evidence that confirms our judgment. In so doing, we disregard alternative details, suggestions, or opinions that might show us we are wrong. This quickly leads to errors. It is not the fault of practitioners that we have a system that expects them to have all the answers and foretell the future. If they don’t, or when mistakes are made, they are viciously blamed and punished for not knowing, whether by the agency, the media, or the public. As supervisors, we have the ability to alter this. We have to make decisions in child welfare and often we don’t have a lot of time. Yet even in those moments, as supervisors, we can model calmness, slowing down, asking thoughtful questions, and seeking further guidance from the family and other diverse perspectives.
It is incredibly difficult to keep this slow, deliberate decision-making approach at the forefront when we are dealing with a crisis. I reflect on numerous occasions when a practitioner entered my office with a case situation and asked for solutions or to ease their fear for a child. As a social worker and leader my instinct is to immediately offer solutions and tasks. I have had to retrain my response starting with how I respond to the anxiety flowing from the practitioner. Supervisors especially must remain outwardly calm, even when we don’t feel calm internally. Emotions are contagious. A calm supervisor will spread calm to the practitioner through mirror neurons. Calm and intentional mindfulness create an environment where everyone can be intentional and effortful in decision making. The first step is calmness from everyone and then conversations can begin about how to reach a decision in the case. This might be as easy as reminding our colleagues about the importance of slowing down as the conversation starts.
So how should those decisions be reached once the professionals are calmer? There is a common saying from families involved in the child welfare system: “nothing about us without us.” How do we live this out in our decision making? We involve families. We ask them questions and listen to their perspective in a genuinely curious way. If they cannot be present in the room when a decision needs to be made, it is the supervisor’s responsibility to ask questions that bring forward the family’s voice. Too often, decisions are made by a few professionals sitting in a conference room with their minds already made up and arguing for the decision they have already made. But families are amazing! When we bring our fears and worries to them and their support networks, they create a plan that we could never have designed in the confines of our conference room. Let’s not only involve the family, but let’s actually believe that they have the answers within them. It is the supervisors, managers, and directors that can reinforce this type of system.
Even when we genuinely seek the family’s participation in decisions, we ultimately have the power to agree or disagree with their voice. We cannot pretend that this is easy, and I know that decisions about children and families weigh heavily on practitioners. This weight is a major factor in the secondary trauma, moral injury, and worker turnover that squeeze the system. Due to those factors, it is preposterous for us to allow these decisions to be made by one or two people. Decisions need to occur in teams with the supervisor’s support. This cannot be done through an informal, disorganized conversation where everyone talks at the same time about their feelings, intuitions or other cases that seem similar. When the supervisor brings the team together, the conversation must occur in a purposeful way. The best way I have seen this done is by identifying one person in the team to lead the conversation to focus on questions that will help the team think through the decision from all angles with child safety at the center.
Our county utilizes the group supervision process from the Signs of Safety framework. This process is effective because it slows down everyone’s thinking so they can analyze behavioral detail, the potential impact of the decision on the child, existing strengths and safety, and the family’s natural support network.
The other important element to effective decision making within a team is creating a safe environment in which the entire team can learn from one another and continuously improve as practitioners. We need a space where we can honestly reflect on our decisions and discuss our biases and judgments. This requires us to invite people to the decision-making table who bring diverse perspectives, especially as it relates to systemic racism. This is the responsibility of the supervisor and leadership within an organization. Additional information on creating a safe, educational culture within an organization can be reviewed in chapters 9-10 of the Signs of Safety Comprehensive Briefing Paper on the Signs of Safety Knowledge Bank
When discussing decision making strategies with colleagues from jurisdictions across the country, I am often questioned whether the child protection system can really afford to slow down to make decisions at the point of crisis. Often, what we view as a crisis still allows the ability to invite multiple perspectives, ask the next best question to the family or child, slow down our breathing and even say out loud, “Let’s slow down for a second”. When we do this and ask each other questions like “What would happen if this child stays home tonight?” or “What are small steps that can be taken right now so the child can remain in the home?” or “How can we get the family and the informal support together to help sort this out?”, we can prevent placing children as a knee-jerk response. These questions shift our perspective from whether this child should remain in the home to how this child could remain in the home.
Child welfare professionals are not typically blessed with an abundance of time or calm situations, yet we must create the best environment possible to make sound decisions utilizing the part of our brain where we use focused attention and slow thinking. Families depend on us. Children depend on us. Communities depend on us. Decisions that impact the lives of generations to come require us to be deliberate, intentional, open to criticism, and willing to make a robust reflection on how we are bringing our emotions, as well as our implicit and explicit bias, to the decisions that we are making. How we make decisions starts with leadership and looks to supervisors to model this process.
The Minnesota Child Welfare Practice Framework is a set of competencies that have been created to assist child welfare professionals in defining and demonstrating their knowledge, skills, and understanding across a number of different practice areas. Refer to page 22 of the Practice Framework to review all competencies related to Decision Making, and consider ways to develop your own knowledge and skills.