In human service organizations that experience crises of legitimacy, reform is often needed so that services offered are actually of acceptable quality. Change is particularly difficult to carry out in child welfare agencies because of limited funding, staff shortages, controversial policies, and stressful and stress-laden client population.
This dissertation examines how change was brought about in the Illinois state child welfare system in response to the crisis generated by the B.H. lawsuit. The lawsuit demanded global reforms to ensure that all children unable to be reunited with their parents are afforded safety, wellbeing, and placement in a permanent home in the least restrictive setting within a specified time period.
The examination is based on several organizational theories and on a model in the literature arguing that extreme upheaval in an organization's institutional context inhibits organizational learning and thus adaptive organizational change. The primary data source is semi-structured interviews with 40 respondents who represent the state child welfare organization and its institutional environment. The style of data analysis is immersion/crystallization, a fluid process involving repeated delving into and experiencing the data, leading to the emergence of insights and interpretations.
In addition to confirming the existence of distinct phases over the course of the lawsuit and resulting consent decree, the findings identify barriers to change in the earlier phases. Internal barriers include lack of infrastructure, lack of knowledge needed to make changes, and changes in leadership, while external barriers include a rapidly growing caseload, multiple concurrent lawsuits against the organization, budget cuts, and power struggles among players. The findings also reveal particular factors leading to successful change in later periods, including mutual agreement between plaintiff and defendant to change the focus of reform from compliance with the consent decree to outcomes for children, a growing research capacity, and collaborative leadership.
The dissertation concludes by highlighting important factors to consider when attempting to change a complex organization, including the organization's institutional environment, constraints, leadership style, collaborative working relationships, and ability to learn from mistakes. The conclusion also demonstrates how this dissertation advances the theoretical model that serves as the foundation for the study.