By: Katie Albright and Jody Levison-Johnson

Children thrive on positive and nurturing relationships with caregivers and other adults in their lives.

This means supporting a child starts with supporting their parents and caregivers, and too many are overloaded right now. COVID-19 has created immense burdens for people who are caring for children, and they are trying their best to stay afloat — from financial strains caused by job loss, to child care shortages, to the mental stress of keeping their families healthy. Too often, parents do not know where to turn for assistance when they need it. Even before the pandemic, a national survey of parents with young children found 48% did not receive the help they needed, with 8% saying they get no support at all.

We can relieve some of this stress and improve the well-being of children by providing support to families who may be struggling. Sixty percent of children who come to the attention of child protection systems do so because of concerns related to neglect, which can often result from living in poverty. If we want to prevent neglect, we need to address the root causes and ensure families are financially stable. By investing in preventive resources, public health approaches, and financial support for children and their families, we can implement effective long-term solutions that keep families together and ultimately keep young people safe.

We cannot afford to be solely reactive and only pay attention after a crisis occurs. Research shows that by working proactively to address immediate needs with concrete financial support, we can prevent families from needing child welfare involvement. Entities like Family Resource Centers and nurse home visiting programs are two best-in-class examples of how providing concrete supports — housing, income, and food — can alleviate the need to place children in the foster care system and separate them from their home, communities, and culture.

Fortunately, child protection in our country is changing for the better — from a system that responds only after a child has been harmed — to one that is more focused on the needs of children and families from the start. As representatives of organizations that work across the child protection spectrum from prevention to placement to reunification, we welcome this change. We have seen what works, and what does not.

Some may argue that removing children from their families, rather than finding ways to proactively support the family, is the right approach. Science, however, shows that further harm may occur when children and youth are taken from their support systems. Our focus should be on minimizing this trauma, especially for the majority of families who do not require removing a child from their home.

When parents are unable to care for their children, placing children with other family members can be the next best option. Studies have shown that child welfare policies that prioritize placing a child with their relatives or other guardians have significant benefits for the child. By investing in kinship care, we can help minimize a child’s trauma, increase stability and permanency, improve mental and behavioral health outcomes, and create an easier transition for these youth as they age into adulthood.

Further, our solutions must reckon with racism that is deeply embedded within the very system intended to protect children. Our children pay the price when we ignore this ugly reality. The structural flaws of the child protection system have a disproportionately negative impact on Black and Indigenous children compared to their white peers. Because of systemic and structural inequities, the child protection system is more likely to separate children of color from their parents and place them in foster care; place them with multiple families or in group homes; and reunite them less frequently with their birth families or establish a permanent home. All of this creates conditions under which children of color are less likely to attain equal social, behavioral, and educational outcomes.

Taken together, this paints a clear picture: We need to reimagine the child protection system. By funding programs that support housing infrastructure, child care assistance, and medical care, we can relieve significant stress for families — stress that we know has negative downstream effects on children. When we support parents and caregivers with the resources they need, everyone benefits. We all want what’s best for kids. Let’s start with their parents.

Katie Albright is an attorney and president & CEO of Safe & Sound, a San Francisco-based children’s advocacy organization dedicated to strengthening families and ending child abuse through evidenced-informed services, education, partnerships, and policy. Safe & Sound is part of a national network of family resource centers that partner with families each day to promote positive outcomes for children, caregivers, and communities.

Jody Levison-Johnson is a licensed clinical social worker with nearly 30 years of human service experience and the president and CEO of Social Current, a Washington, D.C.-based organization formed from the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities and the Council on Accreditation joining forces. Social Current creates and nurtures relationships among social sector organizations and drives the future of the sector through policy, advocacy, knowledge exchange, certification, and accreditation.

It’s hard to believe it has been one year since the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic and our world, as we knew it, changed.

There have been many heroes of this pandemic–the health care workers who persevere through long hours, personal protective equipment shortages, and unimaginable tragedy; the teachers who transitioned to virtual learning and continue to inspire their students; and the many essential workers who went about their daily jobs delivering packages, serving meals, and fighting fires despite the pandemic raging around them.

There is also another category of unsung essential workers that deserve our recognition and our accolades–our nation’s social workers. March is designated as National Social Work Month and this year’s theme from the National Association of Social Workers is Social Workers Are Essential

Social workers are social heroes. They play a vital role in our communities–ensuring food availability, securing adoptions and forever homes, providing medical and behavioral health services, and helping ensure that all individuals and families have the opportunity to feel happy, healthy, and a sense of belonging.

Social workers connect communities to vital resources and in many cases, sit in roles where they address ongoing systemic and policy needs. They have had to adapt throughout this pandemic to continue to provide these services both virtually and in-person. And, with the spread of the pandemic, the need for social workers has grown even greater.

Across our nation, social workers have met these challenges in unique, creative, and heart-warming ways. At times putting aside their own needs and those of their families, social workers have offered essential care to people in need, whether dropping off food donations to families on fixed incomes, securing laptops and tablets to allow communications between seniors and their families, or advocating for state and federal policy to ensure people were cared for during this most critical time.

The demand for social services has dramatically increased while initially resources available to provide their services plummeted. Thankfully, with passage of the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan Act where social workers were active advocates, many of these challenges will be met. Midsize and larger social sector organizations who had been shut out of earlier relief funding will have access to critical support. The $350 billion in state and local funding will enable social sector organizations to continue critical partnerships with government to respond to the changing needs of communities. The child care sector, which has experienced tremendous disruption, enrollment drops, and extra costs, will see $40 billion in childcare stabilization funding. A new Child Tax Credit Expansion that economists predict will cut childhood poverty in half is included that will provide for the basic needs that enable all families to thrive.

These measures will have a tremendous impact on shoring up support for social workers who have done so much for our communities over the past year. These measures were also advanced by social workers, amidst all else required of them this past year. 

This March, let’s all celebrate the essential work of social workers who support individuals and families and answer their needs, not just in times of crisis, but every day.

Bridging Micro and Macro Social Work

Families and communities are stronger when they have access to the vital building blocks of health and well-being. Social work as a discipline and a methodology has been essential to the development and delivery of those building blocks and is most effective when grounded in the intersectionality of research, practice, and policy at individual, community, and systems levels. This bridging of micro and macro is what actualizes whole-person, whole-community aspirations into genuine and measurable impact. 

Learn more about these approaches in Families in Society, the Alliance and Council on Accreditation (COA) social work research journal. The articles featured below for this month’s observance demonstrate the essentialness of micro and macro social work. Alliance and COA network partners can access all 100+ years of journal content in the online library as part of their network benefits, while others can select access options on the journal website.  

A big thank you to Jody, our President & CEO, for this blog post.

After a successful due diligence process and Board and Member vote to merge, on January 1, 2021, the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities (Alliance) and the Council on Accreditation (COA) began its work to integrate operations and build a new organization. As the inaugural leader of the new organization, I know that there is a lot to consider and to do.

Our new organization is intended to be something distinctive, something different. While it will blend the assets of both the Alliance and COA, our intent is not to simply be “Alliance + COA.” Our intent is to spark a current in the social sector—to create a dynamic, inclusive, multifaceted network that leverages the collective experience of the field, research, and each of the legacy organizations. As a new organization, we believe we can activate the power of the social sector and offer novel tools and resources to solve the social problems that plague communities and our nation.

As I said in my prior blog post on leading change, “Change is a collaborative process. Incumbent upon the authorized or designated leader of change is to inspire those around them and to make space for change to occur.”  Our first 30 days of operating together has repeatedly shown me the accuracy of those words. To create this new organization, we will need to engage all our staff, their various skills and talents, and our entire network and their insights and perspectives. We will also need patience.

What we are experiencing as we undertake this merger is really what leaders experience every day. We are operating on parallel paths, engaging in a concurrent process of operating, learning, and creating. Over the past month, as I have dug deeper into learning mode, I have once again been reminded that amid change there are more questions than answers. That is uncomfortable space for me, and I think it probably is for many of us.

As much as we all like to think of ourselves as being able to live in the gray, to tolerate ambiguity, it doesn’t come easily. It would be easier to start throwing out fixes and solutions that would cross things off the list and put people at ease by providing clarity–even if they didn’t like the answers. I go back to my clinical days though and think about all that I learned from families. Initially, it seemed far easier to try to solve the challenges families faced by throwing services at them after making assumptions instead of really learning about their needs – from their perspective. What I learned was that to do it right (or at least better), it took time and it took the building of a relationship. And in the context of that relationship over time, a true (and more accurate) sense of the right solutions emerged. These were informed by multiple perspectives and multiple sources of information, co-created. That is who we aspire to be as we move forward–unifying and purposeful; an organization that creates intrepid opportunities to disrupt the status quo and leads to more just and equitable outcomes.

As I reflect on our first thirty days of operating together, instead of being unnerved by the growing list of questions, I am learning to be energized. I am also learning to be comforted by the fact that we have a vast network of staff and of supporters that will chime in to create the answers. With patience, and the reliance on the voices of many, our new organization will have an impact. I look forward to engaging with everyone to craft our new answers and way forward.

Recent events are inviting and requiring organizations to engage in change at a pace previously regarded as impossible. Leaders and teams are faced with creating an array of strategies that are creative, represent innovation, and will result in sustainability and survival. For some (generally the minority), environmentally-imposed rapid change offers a necessary and exciting opportunity to innovate and iterate without some of the barriers or restrictions that were previously assumed. For others, change is challenging and can result in feelings of uncertainty and distress. Both views, and the gray in-between, are accurate and real. Knowing that people’s comfort can rest at these two poles or the infinite space between is critical when engaging in the change required to address the continued inequities and disparities in our society.

There is no shortage of leadership and change management theories to use when working within an organization or system.  Critical in effecting change is understanding who you are as an organization and what approaches, actions, and activities are most congruent with both who you strive to be and what your organization intends to achieve. Working to promote equity, diversity, and inclusion must be infused into all of our efforts.

From my perspective, successful change efforts require a leader. Being “the leader” may be legitimized by role and positional authority, or it can be a designated or assumed role. While there is variability in environments, I believe that all people can be “the leader” and lead in place. While the scope and sphere may vary, every person can have self-determination, take responsibility, and assume ownership for effecting positive change. Every person can be forward thinking, aspirational, and inspirational – all required when working on change. Cynthia McCauley, Senior Fellow at the Center for Creative Leadership says that “there isn’t ‘a’ leader making leadership happen” (2014, p. 6). Similarly, I would argue that there isn’t “a” leader who will make change happen.  Change is a collaborative process. Incumbent upon the authorized or designated leader of change is to inspire those around them and to make space for change to occur.  Only through an adaptive, authentic, and inclusive process is change likely to be adopted and sustained. We must lean in to these opportunities and to contribute to evolving the systems and structures that impede our society.

Leaders of change are educators and facilitators. They must help people see and become energized by the big picture. They must share information honestly to build collective understanding. They must create a culture where ownership is shared, intended outcomes are agreed to and known, and the ability to make an impact is distributed.  Change is not about one person; it is about a process and outcomes which are enhanced by the creative tension that occurs when diverse perspectives are engaged around a common issue.  It is incumbent upon the leader to create the space for inclusivity to flourish and where new thinking can emerge.

Safe discomfort

Effective change requires that leaders create safe discomfort as a place for change. Renown leadership theorist Ronald Heifetz refers to this as the  productive zone of disequilibrium, “Your goals should be to keep the temperature within what we call the productive zone of disequilibrium (PZD): enough heat generated by your intervention to gain attention, engagement and forward motion, but not so much that the organization (or your part of it) explodes” (Heifetz et al., 2009, p. 29).  This is similar to what Jon Wergin (2020), author of Deep Learning in a Disorienting World, refers to as constructive disorientation, which he describes as “a space just beyond our comfort zone that motivates us to explore new ways of thinking and being. While uncomfortable, this level of disorientation is necessary for us to see our environment and our relationship with it in new ways.” While change can be anxiety-provoking, it is also a time when people can be energized. It can be a truly exciting time that results in increased cohesion and a stronger sense of direction, alignment, and commitment–three critical areas noted by McCauley.

Allowing people to feel disquieted while not being immobilized by fear is what I believe leads to profound change.  Over two decades ago, as a crisis clinician, I often talked about the concept of viewing crisis as opportunity.  The leader must create a manageable crisis, one which produces feelings of unease and manages and attends to potential feelings of loss.  In this space, the impossible becomes possible and alternative ways of knowing and doing emerge. While the current pandemic and events surrounding the death of George Floyd may not feel like it is a “manageable crisis,” it is nonetheless a time that requires us to come together and to think and act differently.

Shared visions (and histories)

Kouzes and Posner have suggested the importance of a shared vision: “Every organization, every social movement, begins with a dream.  The dream, or vision, is the force that creates the future” (2012, p. 18).  Generally speaking, in human and social service environments, mission and vision alignment exists. However, there may be variability in how people understand the future direction and how it will be reached. Whenever possible, co-creating the future state is encouraged. In today’s environment, this may not be possible, but few will not support the mutually held vision of promoting a just and equitable society, of being of highest service to one’s customers – however that is defined – and of organizational survival, even if both look somewhat different than previously imagined.

Change efforts must also reflect a respect for history. While the social and human service sector has continued to evolve, there are many who have contributed tremendously for decades.  For survival, it is essential for people to accept new ideas and allow them to take hold.  At the same time, it is critically important to honor and respect the past and not thoughtlessly eliminate the traditions that people, organizations, and systems hold dear.  Organizations can be prisoners of their own experience, particularly in times of uncertainty, “… when we don’t know what to do, we do more of what we know.  We construct our own psychic prisons and then lock ourselves in” (Bolman & Deal, 2013, p. 7).  In this way leaders must help others to think differently and see things through new lenses, “Because innovation and change involve experimenting and taking risks, your major contribution will be to create a climate of experimentation in which there is recognition of good ideas, support of those ideas, and the willingness to challenge the system” (Kouzes & Posner, 2012, p. 20). 

Looking to the future

Change can be unsettling, and it is generally disruptive. Today’s world requires it. Attending to people’s feelings, communicating frequently and as transparently as possible, and helping people to understand “the why” – including the intended outcomes – are all critically important. Doing all of these things does not guarantee the success of your effort; nor does it mean that everyone will agree. Engaging in change work requires each of us to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Deep change does not always make you popular, but if grounded in your values, guided by a clearly articulated vision, and done for the greater good, those around you are more likely to at least understand it and potentially embrace it.


References

Bolman, L.G., & Deal, T.E. (2013).  Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice, and leadership (5th ed.).  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Heifetz, R.A., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M.  (2009).  The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world.  Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business Press.

Kouzes, J.M., & Posner, B.Z.  (2012).  The leadership challenge: How to make extraordinary things happen in organizations (5th ed.  ed.).  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

McCauley, C.D.  (2014).  Making leadership happen.  Retrieved from http://insights.ccl.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/MakingLeadershipHappen.pdf.

Wergin, J. (2020). Managing disorientation in a pandemic. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@jwergin/managing-disorientation-in-a-pandemic-310b49d5a03c.

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Find additional resources and FAQs here.

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I hope this note finds you all healthy and well. At COA, our operations continue on an entirely remote basis. While we are all missing the camaraderie that we typically experience from being in the office, we have worked hard to adapt to ensure we can continue to be responsive to all of you while also being safe. It has definitely been an adjustment.

The COA Leadership Team continues to meet multiple times weekly to review the current situation, discuss issues that may have arisen, and make any necessary decisions. Front and center in these discussions and decisions are the health, safety, and well-being of our staff, our organizations and the people they serve, and our volunteers.

Given the continued uncertainty and the variability across states with respect to COVID-19 response and reopening, we have decided to postpone all site visits that were scheduled to occur in June. While parts of the country have proceeded with their reopening plans, there are such divergent practices, differing phases, and contrasting opinions that erring on the side of caution felt like the most prudent approach.

We are so grateful to each of you for your efforts and for your ongoing commitment to COA. As always, I invite you to reach out if you have thoughts or things you would like to share.

Wishing you the best during these challenging times.


Jody Levison-Johnson
COA President & CEO

 

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In a time when people can easily feel disconnected, we wanted to reach out to our entire COA community and share an update. As you all know, we continue to live in extremely challenging and uncertain times. Amidst all of this, COA remains committed to ensuring the health and safety of our staff, volunteers, and organizations with minimal disruption to our operations.

Our New York office remains closed and staff continue to operate on a remote basis in a virtual environment. I am pleased to report that our staff, leadership team, and board of trustees have risen to the challenge to ensure that we are able to continue to support all our organizations and maintain critical business functions to keep us up and running. This was no small undertaking and reinforces our commitment to our mission and the work that we do on behalf of all of you and those you continue to serve – thank you!

Following the guidance we continue to receive and under an abundance of caution, we have made the decision to extend the suspension of all volunteer and staff travel and will be postponing all scheduled Site Visits through May 31, 2020. This is not a decision we made lightly, but the safety and well-being of our volunteers and organizations is not something we would ever waver on. Any questions or concerns that our volunteers have can be directed to Darrell Woodliff, Associate Director of Volunteer Engagement. Organizations that are in-process should direct all questions to their COA Accreditation Coordinator, and out-of-process organizations should contact Joseph Seoane, VP of Client Relations.

We will continue to provide regular updates as the situation progresses and are maintaining a list of key resources related to COVID-19 on our website. This is updated regularly and includes a section dedicated to resources that our Sponsoring Organizations have been working hard to compile. If you are a Sponsoring Organization and have resources that are not listed, please let us know so we can get those added as soon as possible.

Thank you, our COA community, for your continued support during these trying times. I am regularly reminded that together we are strong and that we will get through this. As always, please do not hesitate to reach out to me directly if you have any questions.

Be well and stay healthy,


Jody Levison-Johnson
COA President & CEO

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As you know, we are living in a very challenging time that continues to evolve and change, often by the hour.  I
want to take this opportunity to share with all of you how COA is planning for and addressing the current situation.

Many of you have heard me say that accreditation is not just a box to tick and that is apparent now more than ever.  We are a community – a strong community – that always comes together and pushes forward even in the most demanding of times in order to continue to support our most vulnerable populations.  Your dedication to your missions is unwavering and so is our support and dedication to all of you – you are our mission. First and foremost, the health, well-being, and safety of our staff, volunteers, organizations, and those they serve is our primary concern and highest priority.  COA continues to monitor this challenging and constantly developing situation with COVID-19 and has focused the utmost attention on protocols needed to keep our entire COA community safe and healthy.  We have been following the guidance, recommendations, and mandates of federal, state, and local governmental and public health entities to ensure that we are taking the best course of action possible.  We have compiled some key informational resources and best practices for navigating the current landscape that we will continue to update.

Based on the guidance we have received, we will be suspending all volunteer travel and cancelling all Site Visits that were scheduled to begin the week of March 23, 2020.  These restrictions will remain in place through the end of April and we will revisit and update them on an ongoing basis as more information becomes available.  Any questions or concerns that our volunteers have can be directed to Darrell Woodliff, Associate Director of Volunteer Engagement. Organizations that are in-process should direct all questions to their COA Accreditation Coordinator and out-of-process organizations should contact Joseph Seoane, VP of Client Relations.

Here at COA’s office in New York City, we are also taking proactive measures to ensure the well-being of our staff while maintaining business continuity so that we can successfully support you and all of our stakeholders.  While it is hardly business as usual given the current climate, COA has put into effect protocols and processes to protect
our staff and allow for the continued functioning of our regular operations with minimal disruption.

Effective immediately we have suspended all staff travel and instituted remote work for all COA employees. Please rest assured that our systems have been tested to ensure that you will continue to receive the same high-level of customer service that you have come to expect from us.  While business is presently as near to normal as possible for us, we do ask for your patience and understanding as there will inevitably be a few unexpected bumps in the road as we transition to a virtual work environment and the situation progresses.

I want to reassure you that even during these uncertain and unprecedented times, our leadership team and board are working tirelessly to make the best decisions.  I want to personally thank each and every one of you for your continued support, partnership, and tireless commitment to the individuals and communities you serve.

As always, please do not hesitate to reach out to me directly if you have any questions.

Be well and thank you again,

 

Jody Levison-Johnson

President & CEO

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I realize that the ever-changing situation regarding COVID-19 is concerning and I, along with the board of trustees
and COA staff share that concern.  I wanted to take a moment to address the situation and provide an update on our
current operational status.

COA is regularly monitoring the situation and continues to conduct scheduled site visits in the United States.  The health and safety of our staff, volunteers, and organizations remain paramount and we will provide regular updates should the situation change.

Since there are many situational factors that can influence the best course of action to take regarding COVID-19, COA is encouraging all organizations to consult with federal-, state-, and/or local-level health authorities for specific guidance.

We have compiled some key resources providing up-to-date information and best practices for navigating this challenging landscape for organizations to review:

 

COA will update this page as the situation or guidance issued from public health authorities warrants.

Thank you, as always, for continuing to carry on the important work that you do on behalf of the communities you serve.

 

Jody Levison-Johnson

President & CEO

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This is a special message from Jody Levison-Johnson, COA President & CEO.

For many of us, the start of a new year (or new decade, in this case) provides an opportunity to take a step back to reflect, and for some, to project. What were the pivotal milestones last year? What did we learn? What could we be doing more of? Less of? In what direction are we heading? These are particularly salient for me this year. In March of 2019, I assumed the helm of the Council on Accreditation, and in 2020, we are launching some important refinements to our standards and processes, our look, and our approach.

One of the more profound steps COA took in 2019 was to establish a new mission statement. We believe that our new mission more accurately captures the future direction of our sector. It also conveys our intention for our organization within the sector. At COA, we partner with human and social service organizations to strengthen their ability to improve the lives of the people they serve. As an independent accreditor, we recognize the importance of an objective assessment of human and social service organizations’ performance across an array of best practice standards. And as an independent accreditor committed to improving communities and the lives of those living in them, we recognize the importance of partnering with the field to establish, maintain, and ensure adherence to these standards. It is through this partnership that we remain relevant, ensure rigor, and support our sector in achieving results.

As we look forward into 2020, there are important challenges before not only COA, but also all of us in the field. We need to continue to explore ways to demonstrate our impact on those we are supporting. While randomized controlled clinical trials are not in the cards for many of us, careful attention to outcomes–not just outputs–are a necessity. We need to be able to clearly articulate what our efforts accomplish and how we support improvements in the lives of those we work with. Then we need to demonstrate that simply and concisely—and in ways that are meaningful to a variety of audiences.

We also need to be thinking about our financial viability. As mission-driven organizations, we are committed to the greater good. Our ability to deliver on that commitment requires us to be good financial stewards. While some struggle with the idea of adopting a business orientation as it is viewed as somehow eroding our “mission driven-ness,” we need to see the business mindset as a core pillar of our ability to deliver on mission. Continued efforts to educate our communities on what it takes to deliver the quality and caliber of our services is essential. As Brené Brown says, “Clear is kind.” We need to clearly articulate what it takes to do our work well, and to seek supporters who allow us to deliver.

We also need to continue to elevate our visibility as human and social service organizations within our communities. We need to ensure that we have demonstrated not only how critical our services are, but also how crucial our role of “partner” is in the places we work. We know our communities’ needs; we employ our communities’ residents; we are consumers in our communities’ businesses. We are an integral part of the fabric of our communities. We are not simply service providers. We are mission-driven, civic-minded members of communities who make ongoing valuable contributions each and every day.

Moving into 2020, COA is excited to partner with each of you and the broader human and social service sector to advance these ideas and strengthen organizations and the people they serve. We will be seeking new and different ways that allow us to achieve our mission and, as always, are open to your ideas about how to accomplish this. We look forward to the year ahead and to working with all of you to ensure that your organizations, those served by them, and the communities you operate in are enriched in ongoing and meaningful ways.

Jody Levison-Johnson