Commentary: Citizen Participation in Child Welfare: Challenges and Benefits

Date01 September 2014
Published date01 September 2014
AuthorCarol Baumann
Carol Baumann is Northern Region
director for Utah’s Division of Child and
Family Services. Her administrative duties
include working closely with the region’s
Quality Improvement Committee. She has
worked in child welfare in Utah for 15 years.
Citizen Participation in Child Welfare: Challenges and Benef‌i ts 585
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 74, Iss. 5, pp. 585–586. © 2014 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12233.
Carol Baumann
Utah Division of Child and Family Services
Neal D. Buckwalter’s article “ e Potential for
Public Empowerment through Government-
Organized Participation” describes his
research into the ef‌f orts of three states—Utah,
Kentucky, and Pennsylvania—to create and maintain
citizen-involved panels in the world of child welfare,
required in each state by the Child Abuse Prevention
and Treatment Act (CAPTA) as amended in 1996.
His research involved 52 in-depth interviews with
citizens and administrators involved with such panels.
Buckwalter notes that administrators “play a dual
role in public empowerment, inf‌l uencing both its
processes and its outcomes.”  e three states vary in
their organization and operation of federally man-
dated citizen review panels.  e Utah and Kentucky
panels are state administered; Pennsylvania’s panels are
supervised and administered by its counties.  e dif-
ference in structure plays a critical role in determining
the extent of inf‌l uence that the citizen review panels
exercise in each state, as well as the attitudes of the
According to the author, the federal mandate lacks a
gauge of administrative response to the recommenda-
tions made by the review panels. A change in 2003
required state agency administrators to respond to
such recommendations within six months, but it did
not require them to follow the recommendations. In
the world of child welfare, six months is an inordinate
amount of time and may render the recommendations
useless, potentially demoralizing panels that may have
invested strenuous ef‌f orts in crafting well-thought-out
recommendations. With little to gauge their inf‌l uence
and ef‌f ectiveness, panel members are likely to lose the
motivation to donate their time and energy.
Utah, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania dif‌f er not only in
their methods of child welfare administration but also
in how and by whom their citizen groups are coor-
dinated. In Kentucky, the citizen review panels are
coordinated through a contract with the College of
Social Work at the University of Kentucky. In Utah,
the citizen review panels (dating back to 1999 and
called Quality Improvement Committees, or QICs)
were developed as a result of a class-action lawsuit that
Utah successfully settled. Utah has a statewide QIC as
well as one for each of its f‌i ve regions. Pennsylvania,
the last state to comply with the federal mandate,
has a county-run system, and the review panels each
represent up to a dozen counties.
Bureaucratic realities and participant expectations, the
balance between passion and patience, and the “mys-
tique” of complexity are the three characteristics the
author explores in each of the three states he studies.
Critical is the need for the participating public to have
realistic expectations of the review process and possi-
ble outcomes. Committee members need to under-
stand the constraints under which the government
agency operates.  ose who volunteer to participate
on citizen boards do so because they have a passion
for the welfare of children and families. Because of
the multitude of policies and procedures governing
child welfare agencies, change is often slower and less
f‌l exible than those from the outside can tolerate or
Organizational complexity, Buckwalter notes, is one
of the two key sources of child welfare agency power;
the second is the agency’s mandate to provide child
protective services and to allocate public resources.
Buckwalter f‌i nds that panel participants’ ef‌f‌i cacy
depends signif‌i cantly on their degree of working
knowledge of child welfare and their willingness to
learn more about the complexities of the child protec-
tion system.
Working with, not against, the agency produces
the greatest opportunity for citizens to help shape
administrative decisions. Ef‌f ective panel participa-
tion results in an ongoing dialogue of recommen-
dations and agency response.  is provides the
committee members with the feedback they need to
maintain their interest and their sense of making a
dif‌f erence.
Citizen Participation in Child Welfare:
Challenges and Benef‌i ts

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