Dr. Patricia Schene

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2007 Vincent De Francis Award Recipient

For more than 30 years, Patricia Schene has worked in the field of child and family services as a state administrator, private agency director, researcher, and professor.

Dr. Schene has led national forums on the response to child abuse and neglect. Her work has involved national data system development, policy formulation, definition and measurement of outcomes, risk assessment, curriculum development, the building of community collaborations to protect children, and the development of differential response systems to report child maltreatment.

She has contributed to the CWLA standards in child protective services, helped APHSA develop an approach to integrate services across systems, and initiated an effort to crosswalk child welfare statutes and standards in relevance to the national Child and Family
Services Reviews.

Dr. Schene worked for the American Humane Association's Children's Services Division for 17 years, the last eight as director. Recently, she has consulted for and helped states implement and evaluate differential response systems.

American Humane is proud to honor Dr. Schene with the 2007 Vincent De Francis Award.

An Interview with Dr. Patricia Schene

Recipient of the American Humane 2007 Vincent De Francis Award
American Humane presented its 2007 Vincent De Francis Award to Patricia Schene, Ph.D. This award recognizes those who possess the vision and commitment to reach across disciplines to improve child welfare systems on a national level. She was interviewed by Sonia Velazquez, vice president of American Humane’s Children’s Division.

SONIA: Pat, your career of over 30 years serving children and families is an inspiration to many. What is the significance of the Vincent De Francis award for you?

PAT: In many ways receiving this award represents the completion of a circle in that my own work in child welfare was deeply influenced by Vincent De Francis as well as the opportunity to work at the American Humane Association for 17 years. Never far from my mind -- and the minds of all of us in this work -- has been the significance of the mission -- protecting children and strengthening their families. The vulnerability of children experiencing abuse and neglect has always stood out in clear relief as has the absolute necessity to respond effectively to that vulnerability.

SONIA: Aren’t there so many different ways people have approached that vulnerability?

PAT: We are all aware of the cacophony of voices offering ways of understanding and responding. We have witnessed in the past generation both the explosion of public awareness of child abuse and neglect as well as recognition of the limitations of our response. This work will be with us for some time and will require continued and renewed commitments.

SONIA: How would you characterize the key contributions of Dr. De Francis?

PAT: Vincent De Francis was consistent in his writings and teachings on some fundamental principles that inform society’s response to child maltreatment:

  1. Child Protective Services (CPS) must be a specialized area of practice; it is distinct in its purpose and in the families served unlike other areas of social services, CPS mostly serves “unwilling clients” with a particular set of family dynamics generating their parenting practices. Child abuse and neglect is part of a larger context of stressors on these families
  2. People who work in CPS must be educated and trained to be catalysts of change for these families a very high standard of professional practice is needed focus of American Humane’s work has been the preparation of staff for this work
  3. CPS is only one part of the needed resources of a community to support families CPS is a specialized service, but assumes the availability of more general supports to families especially basic necessities, mental health services
  4. His messages always emphasized the importance of “child neglect” even as the public always focused more on the situations of egregious physical or sexual abuse. The challenges of both understanding the dynamics in neglecting families and motivating change often led policymakers in his view to “neglect child neglect”.
  5. Strong commitment to families not just a focus on children; In responding to the public emphasis on “rescuing children” from abusive homes, Vincent said: “the best way to rescue a child is to rescue the family for the child”.

His work and that of the American Humane Association continue to provide leadership to the field based on fundamental principles. The “topics” have changed over the years, but the principles remain relevant.

SONIA: De Francis strongly advocated on the importance of reporting child maltreatment. What has been the impact of increased reporting since Vincent’s time?

PAT: As the level of reporting grew exponentially over the past 30 years (from a few thousand children reported as potentially abused and neglected to more than 3 million) the systems of response also had to not only grow, but become better articulated.

SONIA: How has the field of child protection responded?

PAT: A great deal of work has gone on to understand what exactly we are doing and should be doing as we respond to vulnerable children.

  • Training and preparation of staff led to defining the competencies needed for working with children and families;
  • Workload analyses helped us realize what level of effort was being expended and what level was needed.
  • As reporting outpaced our capacity to respond, criteria were developed to assess risk and prioritize the cases most likely to be re-reported.(with positive and negative impacts)
  • With a growing recognition of the importance of identifying and mobilizing family strengths, we have learned more about how to engage parents and utilize them in the preservation of families

SONIA: It seems that every new headline about a child seriously of fatally injured leads to public uproar about the inadequacy of our system of response.

PAT: You’re right and many of the criticisms are valid. However, greater efforts toward accountability have developed at every level of government.

  • The content of our interventions had to be examined how exactly do we assess what is going on in a family,
  • How to decide whether the child has to be removed from the home for safety,
  • We have to ensure we are tying the services provided to a comprehensive assessment of what is needed, individualizing our response to the particulars of each families situation;
  • Actually motivating parents to change their behaviors and support them in that process;
  • Involving extended families, absent parents, and other stakeholders in the safety of children in meaningful ways family group decision making
  • How to define the outcomes needed to close the case and to measure progress along the way, (Child and Family Service Reviews, or CFSRs)
  • How CPS could work effectively with other community resources to produce the necessary changes in families to secure long-term protective capacity
  • Understanding the decision-making process in CPS and examining its implications so as to better align our work with our mission
  • Working to reconcile the challenge of prioritizing the most challenging cases with the need to intervene earlier to prevent the low and moderate risk cases from becoming high risk situations

SONIA: It certainly sounds like some significant progress has been made.

PAT: The good news is that progress has been made in all of these areas over the past decades. Our issues and topics reflect a growing sophistication in understanding what we are doing and evaluating what success we are having.

Although the topics vary over time, there is a set of principles that undergird our work and a continuity over time in what we are trying to achieve. We also have to revisit the efforts we have made to ensure we can sustain our progress and build on it.

SONIA: There will always be a need for national leadership in child welfare. Just as in Vincent De Francis’ time, leadership is needed now. How would you describe the current agenda?

PAT: Leadership is needed to:

  • Articulate the issues that need to be addressed by policymakers;
    Identifying examples of evidence-based policies and practices that can guide programs
  • Advocate for necessary resources and capacities
  • Build consensus forming coalitions across a variety of organizations and institutions that have a stake in protecting children
  • Help the public at large become more invested in protecting children not only by continuing to report child abuse/neglect, but also by supporting children through their participation in their neighborhoods, faith communities, recreational activities

As we look to the future, the topics and concerns that seem most in need of leadership include:

  • Building Protective Capacity - Understand more deeply and incorporate into practice the ways parents change and progress and the forces that need to be mobilized to make that happen. Parents need support in their change process absent fathers, extended families, communities as well as a CPS system that effectively engages them.
  • Case decision-making - Clarity in expectations for change and routinized ways to meaningfully track progress toward outcomes;
  • Child Safety - building greater understanding through practice research of the empirically based challenges to child safety and the protocols and practices for timely responses
  • Differential Response - Clarity on who CPS serves and what happens to those families who are not served even in the presence of documented child maltreatment or clear vulnerability
  • Cross-system Coordination - Clarity on expectations in every community for the broader system of resources to work together to support vulnerable children and their families

SONIA: Think about it when Vincent De Francis was working:

We did not have a national system of reporting. Now millions of citizens express their concerns for children by reporting and many of these children would not be helped without those reports.

Training for caseworkers was haphazard and inadequate. Enormous progress has been made to define competencies and prepare staff.

Evaluation was very anecdotal. We now have many studies telling us what works, we have outcomes defined nationally, and we have a national system of accountability in place to track outcomes in every state; the body of “evidence-based practices” is growing.

Sexual abuse was unheard of until his landmark study in the 1950s.

PAT: You are right! We have come a long way but we still have work to do. Each generation is obligated not to get to the end of the road, but to lay another portion of the trail, building on what has gone before and committing anew to the mission inherent in this work; sustaining as well as building.


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