Skip to main content

Working together to solve child welfare’s “wicked problems”

By Cecilia Fiermonte, Director of Child Welfare Policy at the Alliance for Children and 

Numerous massive, unwieldy, and worrisome problems currently face the child welfare field. Because of their complexity, the field has deemed them “wicked problems.” And, throughout this year, I have been invited to help address these challenges by participating in the Wicked Problems Institute.

No, it’s not a school from the Harry Potter series; it’s an exciting series of three roundtable discussions led by 
UNC School of Social Work Professor Mark Testa, a prominent child welfare researcher. The effort is co-hosted by Children’s Home Society of America and the UNC School of Social Work’s Jordan Institute for Families. I am honored to represent 
the Alliance for Children and 
Families in these efforts to collaborate and identify viable strategies.

What is a Wicked Problem?

The term wicked problem has been coined within the policy arena to describe a challenge that defies ordinary solution. Child welfare issues are wicked problems because they:

  • Lack consensus around what lies at the root of the problem
  • Are entwined with a host of other challenges, such as addressing concentrated poverty, treating children and families involved in multiple systems, and many others
  • Are characterized by uncertainty around where the solution should focus—for example, whether the focus should be narrow and emphasize children’s safety, or broad and emphasize holistic well-being

During the upcoming Wicked Problems Institute roundtables, experts from government, academia, business, human services, and other fields will share perspectives about three wicked problems in child welfare; drill deep into the issues; and produce ideas that the field will be able to translate into strategies, policies, and practices. 
More specifically, the goals are to:

  • Build a shared understanding of child welfare’s wicked problems
  • Solidify shared commitment to possible solutions for each of the three wicked problems
  • Work with state and private child welfare agencies to implement the solutions identified

Each of the three roundtables will address a wicked problem about which Alliance members can bring a great deal of expertise and knowledge. This is because private providers are at the forefront of implementing innovative solutions, working with outcomes and incentives, and crafting solutions that improve children’s lives.

What follows are some of my thoughts about the three wicked problems chosen for discussion during the Wicked Problems Institute roundtables. I am looking forward to learning from the participating experts, and also bringing the Alliance point of view to the table.

Balancing Innovation and Evidence-Based Practice

Private providers pride themselves on their ability to adapt and quickly change strategies that are not working. They are more nimble, on average, than government agencies. This nimbleness often results in innovative approaches 
to service delivery.

However, a wicked problem arises from the desire to adapt and apply flexible solutions, even as funders still require the use of proven evidence-based practices. Strict adherence to an evidence-based program may mean giving up some flexibility in crafting solutions. Yet, many experts believe adhering to evidence-based practices is the only way to ensure consistently positive outcomes.

For example, the recent Title IV-E waiver legislation supports a more relaxed approach to evidence-based programs. Under the Child and Family Services Improvement and Innovation Act, demonstration projects need not use randomized control trials. But, with less-rigorous evaluation standards, some feel the ability to prove effectiveness has been lost, or at least compromised.

As those of us participating in the Wicked Problems Institute go forward, we will need to find workable solutions that balance the need to quickly rise to challenges with the need to build a solid evidence base for what works.

Achieving Success 
in Privatization

The privatization movement continues across the country, with various jurisdictions experimenting with different models. There are many promising approaches, but also some cautionary tales.

The Wicked Problems Institute will look at how to implement privatization practices and performance-based incentives without creating negative, unintentional consequences. We also will explore how to promote the best privatization practices.

Discussion of this wicked problem will be of particular interest to me, since the Alliance policy office is examining ways to take a leadership role on federal privatization issues.

Striving for Overall Well-Being

As a group, our final discussion will examine the wicked problem related to well-being of children in the child welfare system, including whether the field should be doing more.

Well-being is a broad topic, and one obstacle to addressing it is the belief that it is a fuzzy concept that can’t be measured. Another commonly held belief is that the concept of well-being is too broad and that the child welfare system cannot be held accountable for a child’s health, education, and other aspects that go beyond basic safety.

Yet, most of the forward thinkers in our field believe in a more holistic approach to working with children and families, one that emphasizes education and improving health. Those factors contribute to well-being and result in better functioning families and reduced risk of maltreatment.

These trends will lead us to think about and create measures that tell us how individual children, rather than systems, are performing.

The Wicked Problems Institute will grapple with three wicked problems that already are hotly debated. But, this group will go beyond debating to work toward deeper understanding, collaborative problem solving, and a mandate to move the field forward.

Story courtesy the Alliance for Children and 
Families Magazine