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Social Sciences

Child Welfare Reform Through the Eyes of a Reformer

By Mike Unger

Photo: Olivia Golden discussed her new book, Reforming Child Welfare.

Olivia Golden discussed her new book, Reforming Child Welfare. (Photo: Mike Unger)

When Olivia Golden took control of Washington’s Child and Family Services Agency in 2001, the department was in federal court receivership.

Three years later Golden left the city government having scored many more victories than defeats, but the real winners were the children in the city’s system. It wasn’t always easy — in fact, it almost never was — but the ultimately successful experience provided the perfect case study for her new book, Reforming Child Welfare.

“I wanted to understand how complicated problems can be untangled,” she told American University faculty and students March 31 at an event sponsored by Washington Semester and the School of Education, Teaching, and Health. “I wanted people to understand that you can succeed.”

The scale of issues surrounding child welfare in the United States is not small. In 2007, 3 million calls were made to child welfare agencies. At any given time in this country, 500,000 children are in foster care.

Golden has dedicated her career to helping those kids. From 1993 to 2001, she served in two presidentially appointed positions within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, first as commissioner for children, youth, and families and then as assistant secretary for children and families. In these roles, she was responsible for over 60 programs, including Head Start, Early Head Start, child care, and child abuse and neglect.

Now a fellow at the Urban Institute, Golden brushes aside any suggestion that the system is too broken to be fixed.

In examining her own experience in Washington and researching agencies in Alabama and Utah that also saw drastic turnarounds, Golden believes strong leadership is essential.

“When you begin in a troubled agency, you have to have a vision to help you set priorities,” she said.

Golden’s vision for improving child welfare includes addressing maternal depression, parental substance abuse, and enacting more early childhood programs.

“I believe that engagement in large, troubled organizations can result in implementing quite large-scale changes for children and families,” she said. “So can national policy changes.”