The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Paper Trails and Practice Reform: An Exploration of Street Level Bureaucracy in Child Welfare

Saturday, January 18, 2014: 4:00 PM
HBG Convention Center, Bridge Hall Street Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Melinda Gushwa, PhD, Assistant Professor, Rhode Island College, Providence, RI
Toni Chance, MSW, Child Welfare Training Specialist, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Las Vegas, NV
Background & Purpose: Research on bureaucracy and its impact on child welfare workers has been fairly limited.  One of the many challenges of child welfare work is navigating multiple policy changes that lead to practice reform. This study seeks to explore the relationship between child welfare workers’ perceptions of bureaucracy and their attitudes about implementing practice reform.  Lipsky’s theory of Street Level Bureaucracy Theory suggests that a work environment steeped in bureaucracy, wherein workers believe that rules and regulations are not in the best interest of children, would be least favorable to implementing practice reform. 

Methods: Secondary data from a larger study was used to analyze the relationship between bureaucracy and practice reform. The sample included 499 public child welfare workers in four cities across the United States.  A  street level bureaucracy (SLB) variable was created using items selected from a broader tool developed by Chapin Hall as part of its evaluation of the Community Partnerships for Protecting Children initiative supported by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.  This variable included items that queried workers about their opinions regarding the following: interests of children being replaced by bureaucratic concerns, bending rules to carry out assignments, and the extent to which rules and regulations get in the way of their jobs.  CFA was conducted on these items and the latent construct was found to have good fit (RMSEA = .0000). Practice reform was operationalized based on the components of Individual Courses of Action, including the following: attitudes regarding engagement (EN), family strengths (FS), family team meetings (FTM), and the facilitation of FTMs (FTM-F).  Structural equation modeling was used to examine the relationship between workers’ perceptions of bureaucracy and their attitudes regarding practice reform.

Results: Analysis of the data indicated that perceptions of SLB were significantly associated with attitudes regarding three of the four practice reform variables: EN (z=4.610, p=.0000), FS (z=3.004, p=.0027), FTM (z=4.522, p=.000).  Further SLB was found to be significantly associated with Engagement in the three larger cities in the study (Site1, z=2.216, p=.0267; Site2, z=2.770, p=.0056; Site3, z=3.360, p=.0008).

Conclusions & Implications: The findings of this study indicate that workers who perceive their work environments to be less constrained by bureaucracy have more positive attitudes about implementing practice reform.  In other words, workers who perceive that they have the freedom to do their jobs in ways that allow them to best meet the needs of children and their families are more open to implementing practice reform.  Conversely, those workers who perceive that the bureaucracy of the agency (supervisor mandates, administrative rule, policies and procedures) impedes them from doing their jobs are less open to implementing practice reform.  This speaks to the importance of assessing for workers’ feelings about how bureaucracy impacts their work, prior to attempting to implement changes in practice and policy.