Research That Matters (January 17 - 20, 2008)

Regency Ballroom Wings (Omni Shoreham)

Street-Level Bureaucracy and the Adoption of Family Group Decision-Making

William Vesneski, JD, MSW, University of Washington.

Purpose: In 1989, when New Zealand officially endorsed the use of family group decision-making (FGDM) in child welfare practice, few if any American social workers had heard of the intervention. Since that time, the use of FGDM has expanded rapidly throughout the U.S. and is now implemented in at least 150 communities in 35 states (Merkel-Holguin 2003). Although generally viewed as a positive development, the intervention's diffusion raises important questions about the role front-line social workers play in shaping national child welfare policy. This poster presents findings from an exploratory case study designed to: (1) reveal the policy and practice forces influencing the American child welfare system's adoption of FGDM and its diffusion both cross-nationally and throughout the states; and, (2) identify tensions between local FGDM use and U.S. national child welfare policy.

Methods: This inquiry was primarily focused on identifying contributors and barriers to FGDM diffusion. The research was also informed by Michael Lipsky's (1980) theory of street-level bureaucracy, and thus, a secondary goal was to test this theory's applicability to FGDM diffusion. Qualitative data were drawn from a broad and comprehensive set of sources, including: semi-structured interviews with key stakeholders associated with FGDM diffusion; documentation of local and state FGDM policies; practice manuals and guidelines; legislative histories of select state and federal child welfare statutes; and, scholarly reviews of FGDM best-practices and outcomes.

Findings: Two significant findings emerge from the study. First, FGDM gained popularity at approximately the same time that Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). This act established a legal framework for moving child welfare social work away from supporting families and toward protecting children and quickly securing their permanent placements. That FGDM took root within a hostile policy environment reveals the power of front-line social workers and similar street-level bureaucrats – through the exercise of professional discretion – to influence the implementation of national child welfare policy. In other words, the study shows that child welfare workers using FGDM implemented a de facto family support policy that differs from, and arguably, subverts the child safety policy of ASFA. Second, as is typical of street-level policies, the implementation of FGDM varies across the U.S. The study shows that one important consequence of this variation has been a drift away from the New Zealand model, the acknowledged “gold standard” for practice (Adams and Chandler 2004).

Implications: The findings raise notable questions about the uniformity (and equity) of FGDM implementation in the U.S., the dilution of the New Zealand best-practice model, and possible disjunctures between FGDM and federal law. Equally important, the study underscores the fact that as front-line social workers add to their practice repertoires, they also act as policy agents who actively shape the macro-level context within which they work. Therefore, just as workers carefully attend to their individual clients when utilizing FGDM, they must also ensure that the intervention's use is governed by a set of coherent policy guidelines and that these guidelines harmonize with larger state and federal imperatives.