Measuring Public Value:
Breaking with the past, the PCSAO systematically pursued a new course. The public was asked to speak for itself, to tell the child protection system what it values, to tell child protection agencies what it expects.
The PCSAO conducted focus-group-based research, asking the public to tell the PCSAO what it thinks and what it expects. Participants in the study were first asked to share their attitudes toward and perceptions of child abuse and neglect. They were then asked to share their perceptions and expectations for public child protection agencies.
The research was divided into two phases. During the first phase, a uniform moderator’s guide was developed. The guide was used in each focus group to assure inter-group consistency and to guide the discussion.
Focus group participants were recruited geographically from the general public. Potential participants who were either employed in child protection agencies or had some other current involvement with the child protection system were excluded. This was done to avoid the discussions being influenced by individuals who might be seen by other participants as having special expertise or inside knowledge. The intent of the study was to capture the ideas and views of the general public, not simply those of people with first-hand experience with the system.
Study participants were representative of the age, gender, geography, and cultural make-up of the specific counties where the focus groups were held. They were each paid a stipend to participate in the research. In part, this was intended to reimburse transportation and child care expenses.
Ohio is a very diverse state, with eighty-eight counties ranging from urban to rural. There are large metropolitan centers including Cleveland, Columbus, Akron, Toledo, Dayton, and Cincinnati. Even with these urban areas, agriculture remains the number one industry of the state. Twenty-nine counties, stretching from the eastern part of the state along the Ohio River southward to Cincinnati, are designated as Appalachian. Recognizing the state-wide diversity, the research hypothesized that there would be significant regional variations in participant attitudes and perceptions.
Eight focus groups were required to assure fair representation of Ohio’s diverse public. Group meetings were held in Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland, the farming belt of northwestern Ohio, rapidly growing counties adjacent to metropolitan centers, and locations convenient for participants selected from the Appalachian counties.
What does the public value? What are the public’s perceptions and expectations? Here is what they told the researchers.
There are no regional differences in what the public values, in what it perceives and expects. To the contrary, people throughout Ohio hold very strong and consistent views. When the issue is child abuse, the public speaks with a single voice. (As you will see in the first addendum to this chapter, this consistency is also present across the United States and is likely the same world-wide.)
The public does not make a clear distinction between child protection and the provision of financial aid and services to needy families. Further, both are perceived as government-run and, as such, garner little to no public confidence.
The public is concerned that government could dictate the manner in which they discipline their children and could intervene into the institution of the family based upon spurious reports. Specifically, they are concerned that child protection agencies may intrude inappropriately into families, with inadequate consideration for the rights of parents.
Concurrently, the most important child protection issue is the strongly held belief that all children should be safe. Comments like, “You know abuse when you see it,” were common among focus group participants. The public also feels that people who do actually abuse children should be dealt with harshly.
The public has many child-protection-related questions and concerns. They expect better information and specific answers. This will, they believe, enable them to more capably evaluate the performance of the child protection system.
In response to the expressed information needs and the demand for specific answers, the study was expanded. Four additional focus groups were held for this part of the research, with appropriate attention to geographic and cultural representation. Certainly, the public is entitled to the information they expect as well as to complete and accurate answers to their questions. Pursuing this public entitlement, the researchers developed a process for focus group participants to rank, in order of importance, the issues raised in the first part of the study. In rank-order, the priority issues are these:
· The safety of children is the most important child protection issue for the public.
· Child protection agencies should maintain children within their families whenever possible, so long as the children are safe.
· Whenever possible and safe, agencies should place children with other relatives, when the children cannot remain with their birth families.
· The public is willing to increase taxes to increase the safety of children.
The public does, however, expect the child protection agency to fully account for the money currently available to it. Additionally, the agency is expected to be explicit and forthcoming about its plans for any additional tax money it may receive.
· The public expects members of the Children’s Safety Net to cooperate and collaborate.
The shared commitment must be to the safety of children and to the stability of families. Individual member interests and dedicated funding streams mean nothing to the public. It is the publics tax dollars being spent, whether local, state, or federal. Whatever the source or fund designation, the public’s expectation is that all programs and services will be coordinated and unduplicated. What’s more, they expect all tax-supported activities to reflect their central value: increasing child safety. Beyond that, the stability of families is to also be supported and nurtured, whenever possible and appropriate.
· The public believes that child protection agency social workers are overworked, underpaid, and inadequately supported in their efforts to increase child safety.
· The public believes that most foster parents are “in it for the money.”