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The Impossible Imperative

Navigating the Competing Principles of Child Protection

Jill Duerr Berrick

Publication Date - November 2017

ISBN: 9780190678142

264 pages
6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

In Stock

Brings to life the daily efforts of child welfare professionals


The Impossible Imperative brings to life the daily efforts of child welfare professionals working on behalf of vulnerable children and families. Stories that highlight the work, written by child welfare staff on the front lines, speak to the competing principles that shape everyday decisions. The book shows that, rather than being a simple task of protecting children, the field of child welfare is shaped by a series of competing ideas. The text features eight principles that undergird child protection practice, all of which are typically in conflict with others. These principles guide practice and direct the course of policymaking, but when liberated from their aspirational context and placed in the real world, they are fraught with contradiction. The Impossible Imperative is designed to inspire a lively debate about the fundamental nature of child welfare and about the principles that serve as the foundation for the work. It can be used as a teaching tool for aspiring professionals and as motivation to those looking to social work to make a difference in the world.


  • Relevant to those interested in a social work career, as well as those interested in working with children and families.
  • Functions as an important teaching tool, a discussion guide for the college classroom, and a thinking guide for child welfare professionals.

About the Author(s)

Jill Duerr Berrick, PhD, MSW, is Zellerbach Family Foundation Professor in the School of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Berrick's research focuses on the relationship of the state to vulnerable families. She has written or co-written ten books on topics relating to family poverty, child maltreatment, and child welfare. Her interests target the intersect between poverty, early childhood development, parenting, and the service systems designed to address these issues. Berrick's research approach typically relies upon the voices of service system consumers and providers to identify the impacts of social problems and social service solutions on family life.


finalist for the 2019 Media for a Just Society Award

honorable mention 2019 Society for Social Work and Research Outstanding Social Work Book Award

The Impossible Imperative expertly conveys the complexity of [the child welfare] system and these decision-making challenges. The text utilizes stories from current child welfare caseworkers to highlight the multiple competing demands and principles that shape their decision-making process and bring to life the complexity of this role.EL Although this book should be of great interest to current child welfare caseworkers and administrators, this is essential reading for anyone considering a career in the child welfare field. This work isn't easy and it isn't for everyone. But for those who can learn to navigate the complexities of this system, and dedicate themselves to ensuring the safety of vulnerable children, there is a great need for their service. This book is a starting place for exploring this career and determining who amongst us can rise to this challenge. -Journal of Public Child Welfare

Child protection systems in the U.S. currently fail to adequately protect the well-being of the majority of the more than three million children who come to their attention each year. The Impossible Imperative is the most insightful book about how to improve child welfare policy that I have read in many years. Using case stories, this book examines the challenges in implementing current policies from the perspective of the caseworkers who have to implement them. The authors use their unique perspectives to illuminate the complex choices that confront workers on a daily basis, and provide a set of principles that can improve policy and practice. It is critical reading for both policy-makers and caseworkers. - Michael S. Wald, JD, MA, Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor of Law, Emeritus, Stanford Law School

The authors masterfully convey how the ambiguities, uncertainties, and ethical tensions inherent to child welfare practice manifest in the day-to-day work of this field's front-line professionals. These individuals must continually grapple with the complex needs of the families they encounter, the labyrinth of policies guiding their practice, the competing perspectives of other system stakeholders, and larger structural forces that work against child and family well-being. Yet, as evidenced by the case stories integrated throughout the book, they manage to approach their work with profound care and compassion, motivated by a desire to strengthen families and keep children safe. This book will significantly enrich the learning experience of students in multiple disciplines that intersect with child welfare. - Kristen S. Slack, PhD, AM, Professor of Social Work, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Principal Investigator, Wisconsin Child Welfare Professional Development System

This book uniquely features the voices and expertise of front-line child welfare workers. In highlighting many of the safety, permanency, family preservation, and behavioral health complexities in child welfare practice, Berrick and her team integrate a coherent set of guiding principles with case rich analyses. Readers will gain much thoughtful practice wisdom (with empirical grounding) from the showcasing of the dilemmas faced by these social workers. Because it brings to life the palpable, moving stories of trained social workers and the children and families they serve, this book promises to be a treasured classic in the field. -Katharine H. Briar-Lawson, PhD, MSW, Professor and Dean Emeritus, School of Social Welfare, SUNY University at Albany

Jill Berrick's books have a wonderful way of thoroughly integrating rigorous research that paints a general picture with vivid case stories that highlight the tensions and dynamics hidden in that research. In this volume she introduces client stories, through the first-person accounts of child welfare workers (these are very much their stories, too). She and her many child welfare worker co-authors give readers a deeper understanding of the complexities of the work and a crystal clear rationale for further developing a highly skilled and experienced workforce as the norm in child welfare services. Every future and current child welfare professional, and their allies, should read this book. - Richard P. Barth, PhD, MSW, Dean and Past-President of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, University of Maryland School of Social Work

Child welfare work is not rocket science; it is much harder, certainly less precise, usually complicated, and often involves life-changing decisions by the child welfare workforce. Dr. Jill Duerr Berrick's book, The Impossible Imperative, boldly tackles the conflicting challenges of child welfare work and highlights the daily consequential decisions required of the child welfare workforce. Child welfare professionals give vivid accounts of their work with children, youth, and families exposed to the child welfare system. The stories lay bare the difficulties and dilemmas of the work, tempting the reader to become enmeshed in the families' struggles. Dr. Berrick, however, is masterful at bringing the reader's attention to the lessons inherent in the often heart-rending experiences of children, youth, and families. - Nancy S. Dickinson, PhD, MSSW, Clinical Professor and Project Director, National Child Welfare Workforce Institute, University of Maryland School of Social Work

The Impossible Imperative illustrates the work of child welfare and how the principles of child protection interact and sometimes conflict with each other or with the existing system and resources. This book weaves together research, policy, and practice with rich 'day in the life' anecdotes of real child welfare workers on the front lines of working with children, youth, and families involved with child welfare services. Through the lens of both an academic and the too-often overlooked perspectives of child welfare workers, readers learn how the system is intended to work and observe examples of how it actually works. - Bethany Lee, PhD, MSW, Associate Professor, University of Maryland School of Social Work

As a former child welfare caseworker, I know firsthand the complexities of this work and the incredible difficulties that come with the responsibility of making decisions that will forever impact the lives of vulnerable children and families. To someone who hasn't done this work, these decisions may seem simple and straightforward, but they are anything but, and living with the consequences of them still weighs on me today. This is an exceptional text that expertly conveys such complexity, and is essential reading for anyone considering a career in this noble but challenging field. - Alan Dettlaff, PhD, MSW, Dean, University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work

Table of Contents

    About the Book

    1. Child Welfare: Perilous Territory for Those Who Care
    Xander, by Freny Dessai
    Parker & Winona, by Trudi Frazel

    2. Screening and Assessment: Who Do We Serve?
    Children in Need, by Maria Burch

    3. Are They Safe (Enough)?
    Josiah & Jaden, by Leslie Laughlin
    Bill & Jane's family, by Erika Altobelli

    4. The Oldest Debate in Child Welfare
    Tonya, by Socorro Reynoso
    Terry, by Viviana Colosimo-Blair

    5. When We Say 'No' to Family
    Shannon, by Alyssa Barkley

    6. Fighting for "Hard-to-Place" Kids
    Danny, by Monica Montury
    Luke, by Wendy Wiegmann

    7. The Quest for a Forever Family
    Ethan, by Hanna Rashkovsky
    Olivia, Ronald, Vanessa, Chloe, and Nathaniel, by Traci Bernal

    8. Culture Clash and the Power of the State
    Mario, by Angelica Rodriguez
    Pablo and Yessi, by Sasha McGowan

    9. Whose Voice Counts?
    Alison, by Freny Dessai

    10. Contested Principles on the Front Lines
    Joaquin, by Veronica Perez

    About the Authors

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