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October 2003Vol. 4, No. 8The Role of Leadership

Much has been written recently about child welfare reforms in Illinois, under the guidance of Jess McDonald, Director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) from 1994 to 2003. (See Additional Resources, below.) The outcomes achieved during his tenure are impressive:

  • Fewer children are in foster care. The number of children in substitute care has decreased 60 percent, from more than 50,000 in 1997 to approximately 21,000 in 2003.
  • Children spend less time in out-of-home care. Children entering care now will spend 43 percent less time in care than those entering in 1995 (25 months vs. 44 months).
  • Permanency has increased. More children were adopted or had guardianship established in 1999 than in the 10 years between 1985 and 1995 combined.
  • Children stay closer to home. Placement in out-of-state residential programs has been reduced from a peak of 800 children to fewer than 20.

These achievements demonstrate what can be accomplished by a strong leader. Jess McDonald's efforts in Illinois illustrate many recognized principles of effective leadership, including:

  • Accepting responsibility. Within 1 month of accepting the position, McDonald announced Illinois was going to seek accreditation. "I saw this as a key strategy for changing the organizational culture ... to one where the folks owned the change," he says.
  • Emphasizing outcomes. Illinois took performance data back to the field and included front-line staff and leadership in the decision-making process about how to improve outcomes.
  • Creating a shared vision. McDonald sought and strengthened partnerships with all stakeholders, including educational institutions like the University of Illinois School of Social Work, the court system, and numerous private agencies (through performance-based contracting).
  • Finding ways to create new resources. McDonald and his staff created more permanency options for children in out-of-home care by taking advantage of the Title IV-E waiver that allowed subsidized guardianships. He also found ways to make better use of existing staff in order to cut caseloads for everyone--from 40 cases per worker to 17.
  • Focusing on practice. "If you don't have competent capacity, you're not going to get the outcomes," says McDonald. Illinois made a commitment to increasing staff capacity through strength-based training for front-line staff and supervisors.

Leaders like Jess McDonald epitomize the qualities that will help child welfare agencies across the country continue to improve their performance and, by doing so, improve the lives of countless children and families. Though Jess has recently retired, child welfare leaders at all organizational levels across the country have much to learn from his work. The Children's Bureau is here to assist all of these committed professionals in their efforts, through initiatives such as the Child and Family Service Reviews to emphasize outcome-based work, child welfare waiver demonstration projects and discretionary grant programs to support innovation and dynamic thinking, and more. For more information, visit the Children's Bureau website at

Additional Resources on Child Welfare Leadership

For more about Jess McDonald and the reforms in Illinois:

Helpful websites:

  • Child Welfare Reviews ( This section of the Children's Bureau website provides information about the Child and Family Service Reviews.
  • Child Welfare Waiver Demonstration Projects ( Summaries of Children's Bureau demonstration projects testing new approaches to the delivery of child welfare services to improve outcomes for children.
  • National Child Welfare Resource Center for Organizational Improvement ( A service of the Children's Bureau, the National Child Welfare Resource Center for Organizational Improvement strengthens and supports organizations committed to the welfare of children, youth, and families through research, training, technical assistance, and evaluation.
  • APHSA Leadership and Practice ( The Leadership and Practice Development department of the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA) supports and enhances the capacity of State and local human service agencies to implement new policies and effect major program reforms.
  • Council on Accreditation ( The Council on Accreditation is an independent, nonprofit, child- and family-service and behavioral healthcare accrediting organization.

Search the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information database for other organizations related to leadership and child welfare:

Books on leadership:

  • Chrislip, D.D. (2002). The collaborative leadership fieldbook. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (
  • Heifetz, R.A. (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Linsky, M. & Heifetz, R.A. (2002). Leadership on the line: Staying alive through the dangers of leading. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
  • Baker, W.A. & Kluger, M.P. (1994). Innovative Leadership in the Nonprofit Organization: Strategies for Change. Washington, DC: Child Welfare League of America. (

Search the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information documents database for other publications about leadership and child welfare:

Related Items

Read about child welfare reforms in New York City in the recent Connect for Kids article, "Caring for the Caseworkers Who Care for Kids" (

Read more about leadership in child welfare in previous issues of Children's Bureau Express (