Children off the Radar Screen: What the Child Welfare System Can Learn from Aviation Safety

The past year marked an unprecedented safety milestone for commercial aviation and surely provided much relief for airline passengers, especially frequent fliers. For the first time in aviation history, there was not a single fatality on commercial jet airliners, which flew 4.1 billion passengers around the world. That was due largely to the skills of tens of thousands of pilots, air-traffic controllers, flight attendants and mechanics.

During the same period in the United States alone, approximately 1,700 children died from abuse. Why don’t children deserve a year with no deaths from abuse?

To improve child protection, we might adapt some lessons from commercial aviation, another complex system where safety is paramount and now boasts a stellar track record. Some might see this as a stretch, but consider several striking parallels: Both systems contend with huge numbers of clients and employees, unions, myriad regulations, lawsuits stemming from injuries or deaths, and unpredictable social and economic forces.

Eileen Mayers Pasztor, DSW

Consider these numbers: About 15,000 federal employees work as air-traffic controllers, responsible for tracking every single aircraft in U.S. airspace, from jumbo jets to small private planes. They communicate with about 50,000 pilots employed by U.S. airlines. More than 600 million customers are served annually in the U.S. alone.

So how did this system achieve a perfect safety record? There are four ways in which child welfare might improve by emulating the airline industry.

First, the government and private sector work together to develop and implement common safety goals to protect the flying public. For child welfare, this means that public and private social service agencies that serve the same clients would collaborate to achieve mutually agreed upon outcomes and with commensurate comprehensive competency-based training for staff as well as anyone who serves as their role reciprocals, such as foster parents.

Second, aviation’s proactive risk-reduction culture relies on gathering information about safety lapses from a variety of sources, including pilots, controllers, mechanics, and flight attendants. Most airlines pledge not to punish employees for good-faith mistakes, which encourages voluntary reporting of incipient hazards.

The data is analyzed to identify and eliminate problems – typically long before they result in accidents. Individuals aren’t punished unless they willfully broke rules or lied to authorities.  Instead of pointing fingers at individual caseworkers, supervisors and foster parents, agency administrators could use similar non-punitive identification of oversites.

Third: airlines, manufacturers, controllers and regulators all collaborate on uniformly enforced standards for competency-based training and mutually understood procedures. Child welfare, however, relies on a diverse population of public and private agency staff, volunteer foster and adoptive parents and relative caregivers, who are subject to different expectations. As a result, there is no guarantee that any two caseworkers or caregivers will follow the same procedures, or that personal value systems won’t influence decisions, ranging from reunifying children with birth parents to preparing them for adoption.

Consider the disabled jet that ditched safely in the Hudson River off Manhattan’s skyline in January 2009. The combined skills of the pilots, flight attendants, traffic controllers and rescue boat crews prevented fatalities. None of them trained together. But they were all expert at achieving the same safety outcome.

Fourth, when airline disasters occur, investigations are conducted by outside experts and utilize public hearings to determine root causes. Interim findings are quickly and publicly disseminated, so important fixes aren’t delayed. Rather than taking months to prepare reports that may never be released – which can happen in child welfare cases – preliminary findings are announced as soon as conclusions are reached. In this transparent framework, safety trumps confidentiality.  

It is difficult for the general public to find out exactly what happened in a child fatality case, and what interventions could help prevent such incidents from happening to another child. Abused and neglected children generally aren’t on the public’s radar screen until there is a tragedy. The child welfare workers and caregivers who serve them well rarely get interviewed on television. They aren’t celebrated like Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger, who was behind the controls of the “Miracle on the Hudson” flight that saved 155 lives.

But these everyday heroes serve hundreds of thousands of children across the country, often working in neighborhoods that are dangerous for children and families, along with those who endeavor to serve them.

With the same urgency that decades ago prompted the public and private sectors to work together to improve airline safety, public will and political leadership are needed to support our child welfare system. Child protection staff, foster and adoptive parents, and kinship caregivers need competency-based, specific skills. There must be public understanding of the complex causes of child abuse, with realistic prevention, intervention, and supportive strategies. Consider the Child Welfare League of America’s National Blueprint for Excellence in Child Welfare – Raising the Bar for Children, Families, and Communities as a place to start.


Eileen Mayers Pasztor, DSW, is a professor at California State University, Long Beach School of Social Work in Long Beach. She is on the board of directors of the National Foster Parent Association.  

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