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Family and Children's
Resource Program

Vol. 22, No. 2
April 2017

Supervisors: Suggestions for Making Sound Decisions

U.S. President Harry S. Truman famously had a sign on his desk that read "The buck stops here." If you're a child welfare supervisor, the "buck" often stops with you. You are responsible for understanding how things are going with each child and family and for contributing to--and signing off on--all the big decisions. Here are some suggestions for making sure the decisions you make with your staff are effective and sound.

Guard against common reasoning errors. The box below shows mistakes that lead to poor decisions in our field. How can supervisors avoid--and help their staff avoid--these errors? The first step is to be aware of them, acknowledge they are indeed common, and strive to avoid them. The second is to think critically about information you obtain from both the family and collaterals.

Common Reasoning Errors in Child Welfare
  • Making a decision with insufficient information about the family.
  • Being biased toward remembering either the very first information or, paradoxically, the most recent.
  • Selectively remembering things that support one's own beliefs.
  • Remembering information that is emotionally charged, vividly detailed, concrete, and recent more easily than information that is old, abstract, dull, or statistical.
  • Being reluctant to change one's mind and/or to revise previous assessments even when there is new information.
  • Fixing on one explanation/conclusion and (1) looking only for information that confirms it or (2) quickly dismissing new information that doesn't support it, rather than treating it as information that requires further testing.
  • Failing to detect errors in communication, including hearing others incorrectly, writing records inaccurately, and expressing oneself in vague terms that contribute to misinterpretation.
  • Giving an allegation or other information too little weight when it comes from members of the public OR giving too much weight to allegations or other information from professionals.

Source: Munro, 1999 cited in CDHS, 2010

Gather quality information. Sound decisions require good information. As supervisors, we must remind and encourage staff to slow down enough to obtain quality information so we can make informed decisions (Action for Child Protection, 2004a). Here are some tips for doing this:

  • Consistently emphasize to staff the importance of planning their information gathering efforts.

  • Prior to family contact, meet with staff to discuss what information they need and who to get it from.

  • Coach your staff on overcoming barriers to information gathering, such as resistance from the family.

  • Provide field observation and concrete feedback on interviewing skills. Coach your workers and, when needed, send them to additional training.

  • Develop clear criteria for staff about what "sufficient information" entails. For example, focus with staff on:

    Breadth: Is the information obtained about the family comprehensive? Has the worker adequately inquired about each domain of SEEMAPS?

    Depth: Has the worker focused on understanding the family's unique situation? Does their analysis go below the surface?

    Reliability: Is the information you have believable? Is the information from the family corroborated by other sources?

    Pertinence: Is the information relevant and applicable to the safety, risk, or well-being concerns identified in the case?

    Objectivity: Is the information unbiased and factual? Have we let our values or judgments influence how we interpret information?

(Action for Child Protection, 2004b)

Use your data. Data is a powerful yet under-used tool for guiding child welfare decisions. When you consistently collect and analyze performance data for your team, you can use it to drive quality improvement activities with your staff (Reveal & Helfgott, 2012). Specifically, we recommend looking at trends in decision making, such as substantiation and out-of-home placement rates among workers. You can then use this information to provide targeted feedback, coaching, training, and support to staff to address any concerning issues or trends. To learn more about using data, NC county child welfare professionals can login to and register for the one-day course Introduction to Child Welfare Data Sources.

Use supervision to spark reflection. Self-reflection is a key element of critical thinking. Seize opportunities before, during, and after contact with families to encourage workers to reflect on what they know about the family and what questions they still have. Use multiple perspectives and explanations to explore and challenge the worker's thinking (Dill & Bogo, 2007) and to help them guard against the reasoning errors in the box above.

When you focus on developing employees' critical thinking and problem-solving skills, they'll be strong partners and allies for you when it is time to make thoughtful choices and well-developed plans for and with the families you serve.

References for this and other articles in this issue