I really liked this op-ed in Friday’s Providence Journal by Janice DeFrances, the head of Rhode Island’s child welfare agency. Here are a few of the best practices it illustrates in child welfare advocacy communications:

  1. Real Complexity – Coverage of child abuse and neglect tends to focus on two dangerous oversimplifications: psychotically evil parents and negligently incompetent agencies. The first 40 percent of Ms. DeFrances’ op-ed elegantly shreds the second oversimplification, illustrating the dizzyingly complex range of challenges facing the agency every day.
  1. Real People – Kids and families are often reduced to abstractions in newspaper columns, but DeFrances puts real kids and families front-and-center. Importantly, she paints a clear picture of each person (“the homeless family living in a car because the father was disabled and the mother had lost her job and they would rather live in a car then get separated in a shelter”), without ever using an individual’s name. The stories are no less compelling, but she faces no privacy concerns.
  1. Real Progress – It would be dangerous for any child welfare agency to assert its perfection. But progress is a different story, and indeed, conveying that it is possible for child welfare agencies to improve is a central tenet of the SPARC child welfare message narrative. DeFrances does that by literally listing four recent indicators of significant progress. Nothing overstated, and nothing that minimizes the consequences of past failures – just some context to facilitate a more honest assessment of the agency’s track record.

The op-ed’s not perfect. I’d have loved to see her explore how additional resources or better legislative policy might accelerate progress in Rhode Island. But, when child welfare agencies typically respond to criticism with either denial or surrender, her solidly positive commentary is a welcome change.