Where Was Just Culture for Tom Rawlings?

The following post was authored by Benjamin Bell. Mr. Bell is a licensed social worker who spent six years with DFCS as a front-line investigator who interned with Tom Rawlings at the Office of the Child Advocate while completing his MSW. 

In December 2016, the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) rolled out a new practice model known as solutions-based casework. Leadership at the time did this because the agency knew that the punitive method where the agency looked for flaws in families was not working. The new model focuses on partnerships, finding exceptions to problematic behavior, and ultimately encouraging individuals to find solutions to resolvable problems.

The first question that front-line workers asked about the new practice model was how it would impact the way the agency treated them as front-line employees. Would they be treated punitively if they made a mistake, or if a child died? The new program model, they thought, needed to be applied to the workforce.

After being on the job for about a year, the new director, Tom Rawlings having spent as much time as possible listening to front-line staff, rolled out what many front-line workers consider the true crowning achievement for DFCS, a workplace model known as just culture. Tom made clear that a just culture is the opposite of a blame culture. Just as workers were not supposed to blame families anymore, so too would leaders within the agency, starting with him, no longer try to scapegoat workers. Tom was also clear that a just culture can coexist within a safety culture. Tom worked tirelessly to create an environment where front-line staff could feel free to report errors and help the organization to learn from its mistakes.

Tom encouraged individuals to reach out directly to him to report errors, which was a real cultural shift for an agency known for having aloof leadership.

Without Tom’s leadership, this important aspect of solutions-based casework would not have come to fruition and there is absolutely no guarantee that without him it will continue. If it does not continue and the system reverts, DFCS will suffer irreparable harm that last generations.

That is why staff are afraid and scared. They have lived experience with this system and have been through these changes. Unfortunately, they suspect a reversion to blame culture is just around the corner because look what happened to their leader.

If Governor Kemp wants to keep a healthy culture at DFCS, it is imperative that he first seek to understand the work Tom did. He has to recognize how his behavior did not reflect these changes.  And finally, he must assure staff that Tom’s leadership will continue even without him. Because the irony here is that the very model Tom pushed was the very model that wasn’t there for him.

Anyone who has worked for DFCS knows that the child welfare system in Georgia is eerily similar to the families and children it works with. The workforce has experienced a lot of trauma and due to turnover is frequently on the brink of falling apart – being unable to protect those it serves.

Just as one event in a family can destabilize it and lead to irreparable harm that lasts for generations, so too can one event at DFCS destabilize the whole system for generations. The loss of Director Rawlings is such an event, one that seems as though it was completely avoidable if only the proper compassionate response we ask of our front line workers had been applied to him.

Tom deserved better, the agency deserved better, and the people of Georgia deserved better.

Leave a Reply