As a registered lobbyist in North Carolina, Karen McLeod has been known to spend long days at the state legislature, running after officials for a minute of their time.
Through her position as president and chief executive officer of Benchmarks, she’s working on behalf of human service agencies that help children, adults and families. Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, Benchmark—once called Children and Family Services Association—is an alliance of nationally accredited agencies that work in child welfare, foster care, child development and education, juvenile justice, mental health, psychiatric residential treatment and family support.
While The Duke Endowment is prohibited from lobbying, two recent grants from the Endowment are helping the organization identify high quality providers and move the system toward greater accountability to child well-being. “Oftentimes a provider association is a trade association, but we are somewhat different in that we are not in the business of keeping our organizations in business,” McLeod says. “We are in business to improve the quality of care. For providers, that means we’ll be fighting to ensure they have the support, the policies and the funding to implement services in an effective way.”
McLeod, who holds a Master’s in Social Work from UNC Chapel Hill, lives in Raleigh with her husband and 6-year-old daughter. She talks about her work in the following interview.
When the legislature is in session, what’s a typical day for you?
There is no typical day, which is what makes it so hard. A lot of time is spent in committee meetings to hear certain issues that are being brought forward, or working with legislators prior to committee to talk to them about the right questions to ask or issues to bring up.
I’m sure it can be hectic.
People who come with me are often surprised when they see me in my heels chasing legislators down the halls. Literally.
To get my 30 seconds with them, that is pretty typical.
Election turnover must be hard. Sometimes you lose a foe; sometimes you lose an advocate.
There’s a lot of institutional knowledge that we’ve built. But what I constantly try to keep in mind is that change is an opportunity for good. There’s always an opportunity that whoever comes in really could help us make things better.
What does lobbying look like in North Carolina?
It’s very hard. You spend all your time trying to get people on the same page who have very different forces pulling at them to go in different directions.
What makes a good lobbyist?
You have to be able to be clear about what it is you're trying to achieve. You have to know the playing field. You need to know who to approach at the legislature, who can move your issues. You need to know who is going to oppose you and how you can work through that. You have to be able to know the climate – when it’s a good time to take something forward and when it’s a good time to keep quiet. You have to spend a lot of time educating legislators so they see you as a resource and a go-to person. You have to be incredibly honest with them. And you have to know how to frame your message so they can hear you.
Does being a social worker help?
Absolutely. One of the core components of being a social worker is to start where your client is. That's how we approach our legislators. Where are they coming from? What's their background? How do they view the world?
You joined Benchmarks six years ago after serving as executive director of the N.C. Department of Social Services Directors’ Association. What drew you to the job?
I believed it would be a unique opportunity to make a difference in the child welfare world. We are the voice for people who spend every waking minute committed to doing services for clients and it’s an honor to go to bat for them.
What do you love about your role?
I love working at the macro level trying to change policy, statutes, funding streams. When you do make those changes, it affects thousands and thousands and thousands of people. And while it’s very hard to get those changes, the impact is dramatic.
Have you ever thought about running for office?
No! I am saddened by politics, quite honestly. I've seen really good people come in with good intentions, and the power they suddenly find themselves having can be quite corrupting.
Two recent grants from The Duke Endowment have helped Benchmarks pilot public-private collaboration to improve quality of care. What have you learned about collaborative efforts?
A lot of humbleness is needed because it's not all about your agenda. I have found that people respond when you tell them, ‘We all want to get to the same end – we just have a different way of seeing how we get there. Let's see what we all can agree to.’
What have you learned about yourself through this work?
That sometimes it’s hard to eat crow.
I understand that you and your husband are earning your license to be foster parents – and you’re planning to foster to adopt?
That’s right, and we’re using one of Benchmarks’ member agencies in the licensure process. The work I've done to implement policy and legislative changes in practice, I am experiencing it on the ground level. And it has been eye-opening.
Speaking of eye-opening, what do you think the child welfare landscape will look like 10 years from now?
I'm really hopeful. What we are seeing nationally is an integration of behavioral health and physical health – a real movement toward integration of care.
Through one of our grants from The Duke Endowment, we are working on a project that is very focused on integrating mental health with child welfare. Any time a child comes in to care, there would be a full assessment to ensure that we know all the issues the child is facing. We truly believe that if we can get this integration started early, we can change outcomes for children in child welfare pretty significantly.
You hope this becomes a standard in North Carolina?
Yes, within the next five years. We are partnering with the Endowment to create these innovative pilots that we can replicate in other managed care organizations and DSS's. The goal is to make the first placement the right placement – to prevent “failing up” to get the right level of help.
What critical challenges do at-risk children and families face in North Carolina today?
On the child welfare side, there is shrinking funding for family intervention and prevention work. My fear is that we're going to see more children removed from homes and put into care, which is truly tragic and a step backward from where we're headed. On the mental health side, we are in—yet again—a massive transition as we move to managed care.
At the Endowment, we are touting the use of evidence-based practices whenever possible and our hope is that the system will drive children to high quality, accountable agencies. How does our mission align with yours?
It totally aligns. One of the things we did at Benchmarks was to require national accreditation of our members. We don't want to represent agencies that aren’t providing quality care.
But what we’ve learned is that process does not necessarily produce quality. What we have is a system of process-oriented oversight that fails to ask the questions ‘Are clients getting better?’ ‘Is the agency providing the best quality care that they can?’ ‘Are they continually improving the care that they provide, and are they able to show the outcomes?’
As a state, we’re making some progress, right?
We've seen a huge reduction in the number of children going into out-of-home care. There are great strides being made, particularly in our understanding of how we can do better intervention work. The disconnect we're currently facing is using that understanding to change our system so that we are seeing outcomes.
What motivates you?
Getting things fixed. I want the people who have committed their lives to serving our clients to have the tools to do what they get up in the morning to do.
Phillip H. Redmond Jr.
Director of Child Care