It's hard to imagine something more crushing to morale than seeing your workplace covered in crime-scene tape and law enforcement officials carting documents and filing cabinets out the door. But for employees at ChildNet, a child-welfare agency near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the unimaginable became real one spring morning in 2007 when FBI agents and police officers descended on the agency's headquarters amid allegations of forgery and fraud.
ChildNet's CEO was fired and its board chair resigned. It was a day that local child-welfare advocates dubbed "Black Friday," a low point for an already beleaguered child-welfare system that was still reeling from the disappearance of a 4-year-old foster child in 2000. It was a high-profile case that shed light on the fact that Florida had one of the highest rates of missing foster children in the country. And now ChildNet was at the center of a controversy.
"I don't like to think about it," says Maggie Tilelli, a casework supervisor who was hired in 2003. "We didn't know if we would have jobs or who would take over. It was a very grim situation."
It might be just as hard to imagine that within four years of the FBI raid, ChildNet would become the top-ranked child-welfare agency in Florida and one of the most lauded in the country. Most attribute the turnaround to the agency's president and CEO Emilio Benitez who stepped in a year after the crackdown and introduced a series of initiatives not only to boost morale and employee performance, but also to transform the organization's culture. It was a tough road, observers say.
In addition to ChildNet's troubles, there was a sense of mistrust between the Florida Department of Children and Families, or DCF, and the not-for-profit private agencies that handle the bulk of child-welfare cases. In 1999, Florida became one of the first states in the country to privatize its child-welfare system. Then-Gov. Jeb Bush's decision to get out of the child-welfare business was a controversial one, and the transition did not go smoothly.
"DCF had to learn to manage these community-based care organizations," says Kimberly Welles, southeast region program director for DCF. "It was a whole new experience for everyone. One of the main problems between 2003 and 2007 was an anti-department stance. They [the agencies] fought the department over our management of the contract. It was supposed to be a partnership, but it was a battle."
Benitez was the right man to tackle the job, Welles says. He co-founded ChildNet in 2001 and served as its CEO for six years before returning to his Fort Lauderdale law practice. He knew the staff well, and he knew that they were dedicated to their jobs and to the children in their charge.
Besides, social work was in his blood. His father was a foster child and his grandmother was adopted. Benitez says he owed it to them to return and set things right.
"I thought the agency was doing good work, and it didn't deserve the reputation it was getting," he says.
When he took over, Benitez assembled a new executive staff and began changing every facet of the agency's operations with a focus on using cutting-edge technology to help caseworkers do their jobs more efficiently and assist supervisors in managing their employees more effectively.
He also was determined to improve flagging morale. While being "data-driven and outcomes-driven" was important, so was recognizing the daily stress everyone shouldered, he says. "Unless we could figure out how to appreciate them, we knew we would lose them."
Dipak Parekh, ChildNet's chief financial officer and chief operating officer, puts it another way: "Over the last fours years, we've been on a journey to transform not only our agency but our industry."
With a toxic work climate, looming state budget cuts and increased caseloads, Benitez and his team realized that ChildNet's 365 employees were burning out fast.
In 2009, they launched a series of initiatives to improve morale. They set up cross-departmental work groups, or round tables, so employees could share ideas and find creative solutions to problems. The agency incorporated Lean Six Sigma, a methodology designed to streamline business processes, into its management approach. It launched an employee-recognition program called Tokens of Appreciation, which rewards top performers with gift cards.
ChildNet also became one of the first child-welfare organizations to equip caseworkers with smartphones so they could document cases from the field. Caseworkers had previously spent much of their time filling out paperwork by hand and giving it to a supervisor who would put the information into a database, resulting in duplication of efforts, says Tilelli, who oversees eight case managers, each one handling about 20 children.
"We did a lot of double work, and each caseworker did it differently," she says. "Now visitation notes are electronic, so it streamlines everything. The notes are also very detailed because the program prompts questions. Once the caseworker is done, the supervisor gets the information immediately, so if there's a problem I can address it right then and there."
Going digital reduced the time that caseworkers spend on mundane tasks by almost 60 percent, and more families have been reunited as a result. "One of our goals is when a child gets removed from a home is figuring out if there is a possibility of reuniting the family," Benitez says. "Part of that is seeing the engagement and interaction between family members. Since we began collecting data electronically, reunifications have skyrocketed because caseworkers are spending more time doing what they were trained to do."
Earlier this year, DCF began ranking the state's 20 community-based child welfare agencies in a monthly score card. ChildNet, which started off in 15th place in January, moved up to the No. 1 ranking just four months later and has maintained that slot ever since. Also, caseworker turnover decreased from 38 percent in 2010 to 24 percent the following year, according to state officials.
Caseworker Kristal Sanders Caty says that in her opinion, the performance management round tables have had the biggest effect on ChildNet's culture. "There's no such thing as a 'no' anymore," she says. "Those walls don't exist now. Everything is an option."
Caty, who joined ChildNet as an intern in 2007, points to a recent case involving three children with severe developmental and physical disabilities and other health problems who had little chance of finding a permanent home. In the past, their only hope would be to "age out" of the system, which happens when children turn 18, and then move on to institutional care. But Caty and her round-table colleagues were able to locate relatives and train them to care for the children. Eventually, those relatives became permanent guardians.
Benitez recalls another tough case involving twins with a rare genetic disorder and a host of severe physical and development problems. Their care was costing ChildNet about $800 a day and the hopes of finding them a permanent home with a loving family "were absolutely nil," he says.
Staff members came up with an idea to find a support group for parents of children with the same condition. They began networking and eventually found a woman in Utah, whose brother died of the same disorder, to adopt the twins.
"We did a tremendous thing from a personal perspective," Benitez says. "And from a business perspective, it was a tremendous cost savings. But at the end of the day, it's about the families we serve."
The agency has come a long way since the FBI raid. In August the state awarded ChildNet a $40 million contract to take over services from another troubled child welfare agency in Palm Beach County.
Dennis Miles, DCF southeast regional managing director, credits Benitez and his team with the agency's success.
"It starts with Emilio, but he's smart enough to hire people who are as smart or smarter," he says. "The strengths I see at the agency go beyond leadership. They are really systems-oriented. There is a great infrastructure in place with excellent process management and superior technology. And there is also a strong mutual respect between our agencies."
For the way it transformed itself into a top child-welfare agency so quickly, ChildNet is the winner of the 2012 Optimas Award for General Excellence.
Rita Pyrillis is Workforce's senior writer. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Workforce Management, November 2012, pgs. 24-26 -- Subscribe Now!