When a Child’s Issues Are Bigger Than Just One Agency

Judge Patrick Mahoney served for the Superior Court of San Francisco for 13 years.

I spent more than seven years as a trial court judge in San Francisco addressing the needs of children and families. I was tasked with formulating a plan to address the harm before me. In doing so, I received information from lawyers for the parties, expert reports, recommendations of probation officers, social workers and court mediators. Collectively, the information described the family often with conflicting facts, detailed the child’s experiences and needs, and offered an array of recommendations.

A common thread ran through each case: the challenge of delivering services to the children and families. According to Merriam-Webster, a “barrier” includes “a law, rule, problem … that makes something difficult or impossible.” When seeking to address the needs of youth at risk, there are a myriad of barriers. This is particularly true when the needs involve more than one service provider.

The reason is the very nature of any organization, the structure within which it operates. In the public sector, the structure is created not by a single source but multiple sources with varying agendas. Take a child welfare agency. Its employees operate within a county budget and its employees’ wages, hours and benefits are governed by work rules and articulated policies.

The budget is derived from various sources: county funds, state funds, federal programs and private grants. Each allocation comes with its own set of rules that constrain what can and cannot be done. When a need arises for services, the agency’s response flows from these constraints, best captured in the phrase, “This is how we do things.”

That is fine if the youth’s needs fit the agency’s protocol. All too often the challenging cases do not fit neatly into any one agency’s protocol.

Take this example, a composite of challenges confronting a young person who finds herself in the juvenile delinquency system. “Lee” is arrested for sex trafficking for the third time in the past two months. On the prior occasions, Lee is taken to a diversion program and provided a list of resources, which she ignores. This time she finds herself in juvenile court with a report describing her life.

She has run away from home and does not want to return. Lee says her stepfather has molested her and her mother is incapable of protecting her. She has no other family who could take her in. She has missed a substantial chunk of school time and when she does attend, Lee does poorly and acts out, resulting in expulsions. She refuses to cooperate with the police to identify her abusive pimp to whom she has returned on the prior occasions.

To secure services in the delinquency system, Lee needs to be found guilty of a crime and that is not what she needs. She needs a safe place to live, hands-on support that dissuades her from returning to the streets and intensive mental health services to address the abuse, neglect and educational support.

The delivery of this array of services cuts across a range of entities. The juvenile justice and child welfare systems, mental health providers, schools and a nonprofit with expertise in serving the “Lees” of that county should all be involved. The successful implementation of the plan for Lee hinges not just on identifying the services, but having the oversight to implement such a plan.

For this reason, it is critical that service providers form a collaborative structure to take responsibility for addressing each of Lee’s distinct needs and designate a lead agency to ensure the services are provided. Such a collaborative requires each provider to seed a portion of its autonomy and blend its resources with those of others.

Although Lee’s situation is complex, the needs of children and families all too often do not fit within a single agency’s protocols. An effective collaborative is the mechanism to cut through the inherent barriers of public sector organizations that hamper creative and and client-focused services. The formation of a collaborative structure will enable each member of the collaborative to fulfill their mission: providing critical and effective services to youth and families.

The Hon. Patrick J. Mahoney (Ret.) served as a judge for the Superior Court of San Francisco for 13 years before retiring in 2013. He also worked as a civil litigator and now provides mediation and arbitration services. Mahoney serves on the advisory council for the Breaking Barriers Symposium, a working conference that focuses on providing practical ideas to help break the barriers to care for California’s youth and their families.

The fourth annual Breaking Barriers Symposium will be held November 19-20, 2019, in Sacramento. You can register here.

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