Children's Voice Oct/Nov 2005

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New Technology Streamlines Case Management in Washington State

After a six-year legal battle, the Washington Department of Social and Human Services (DSHS) settled a multimillion-dollar class action lawsuit in 2004 filed on behalf of Jessica Braam and some 3,500 other foster children who had been moved three or more times while in foster care. More than one-third of the children had each been placed in over eight homes.

The settlement required DSHS to make major changes in its system of placing and caring for children in state custody. As a result, DSHS authorized a Children's Administration- Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Pilot Project for social workers to more effectively track children in the foster care system, including children's geographic relationships to families, schools, community services, transportation, and other important resources. DSHS contracted with Scientific Technologies Corporation (STC), a public health technology information company, and its business partner ESRI to create a more robust case management system with integrated GIS. Based on the pilot's success, state officials are now considering permanently replacing their existing system with the new technology.

DSHS Program Manager Pat Brown says, "We saw in the pilot application how data mapping would allow our field staff to visualize the relationships among referrals, biological homes, foster homes, schools, and health providers, to name a few, in ways that would dramatically improve the safety, permanency, and well-being of children in out-of-home care."

A recent Urban Institute study shows 88% of states are currently working to improve their child welfare case management process. Case reporting and placement data are often fragmented because of archaic information management systems. Social workers typically must search multiple databases to find information to make the best placement decision, bogging down an already overloaded system and placing additional stress on placement workers.

Before developing the software for DSHS, the vendors performed an in-depth needs assessment and interviewed social workers. Because GIS was a focus of the project, interviewers learned which spatial issues were most relevant to placement decisions. Then they integrated all aggregate data into a central location, allowing social workers to access the information quickly. An Oracle database supported the data integration.

All existing Children's Administration data were address geocoded, which is the process of linking data to a geographic location. Users can add or delete information, such as the location of relatives, schools, friends, medical facilities, and registered sex offenders, by creating an acetate layer. Spatial analysis also provides maps of available foster homes within a set distance of a child's school district.

"GIS is the best tool I've seen for helping us protect vulnerable kids," says Kenneth Nichols, Administrator for Washington's Division of Children and Family Services. "Using GIS, we can see where kids are and create wraparound care for them that is both reasonable and cost effective."

Neal Cotner, a state social work supervisor, adds, "This mapping system added a new dimension in social work practice by raising the awareness of the child and [the child's] surroundings in a graphic, cohesive manner that could be viewed layer by layer as the social worker saw fit."

--Tiffany Potter, Scientific Technologies Corporation

Wise Guys program participants gather images defining male sexuality.

Winning Strategies for the Game of Life

As a former high school principal and teacher, Jimmy Hines knows how students look up to high school athletes as role models. With this in mind, Hines, Director of Health Education and Health Promotion for the Cleveland County, North Carolina, Health Department, placed calls to a few high school coaches in his rural county with a proposal to teach male student athletes about behaving responsibly when it came to sex, including preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

The head football coach at Cleveland County's Shelby High School liked the idea and invited Hines to teach the program one day a week during a weight training class attended by 28 boys, most of them football players. For 16 weeks, Hines conducted the male-oriented teen pregnancy prevention program called Wise Guys, developed by the Family Life Council in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Hines targeted the athletes not only because of their status as role models for other students, but also because he believes there aren't enough pregnancy prevention programs aimed at young males. "We wanted them to understand that society generally gives respect to people who show responsibility for their actions," Hines says.

Class discussions centered on self-esteem, masculinity and sexuality, communication, and parenthood. In one session, the athletes examined what it meant to be a man and how stereotyped male attitudes can lead to problems such as verbal harassment and dating violence. Working in teams, the students designed posters describing their definitions of male sexuality. In another session, the students wore pregnancy belly simulators weighing 40 pounds to empathize with the physical discomforts females experience during pregnancy.

"As they grew to trust me, they began to be a whole lot more intuitive in their thinking," Hines says of the students. But he notes it isn't easy teaching such sensitive issues to teens. "If you're going to teach this curriculum, it helps to have somebody who has a good background in health education and is comfortable with sexuality issues."

Jimmy Hines explains to the school athletes how they can be important role models.

Although Hines did all of the teaching, Shelby High coaches also went through a two-day training in the Wise Guys curriculum to prepare them for being approached individually by students who might have questions.

At the end of the program, Hines held a recognition ceremony and gave the students certificates and footballs. The students also heard from guest speaker Eric Brewton, a three-time all-American football player for Garner Webb University.

The Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program of North Carolina funded the program through a $10,000 grant, which has been renewed for the 2005-2006 school year so the program can be taught again at Shelby High, as well at another county high school. Some of the students who completed the fall 2004 class will also visit area middle schools to share some of what they learned with younger students.

To learn more about the Wise Guys program, visit www.wiseguysnc.org.

Initiative Promotes Weekend Foster Parenting

A major push is under way by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) to bolster the number of foster parents in the Washington, DC, region, and to find volunteers willing to give area foster parents a break at least once a month.

Thanks to federal funding and funding from the Freddie Mac Foundation, COG's new Work of Heart Regional Recruitment Initiative will train current foster parents how to recruit more full-time foster parents. For their efforts, these "foster parent consultants" will receive a $500 monthly stipend for working 20 hours a month to recruit more families. COG's goal is to recruit, train, and license at least 125 new foster parents--a 20% increase in foster families in Washington and surrounding Maryland and Virginia counties--who will accept children with special needs and groups of siblings.

Another aspect to the initiative is a new Volunteer Respite Program designed to give full-time foster parents a break by allowing volunteer foster parents to watch foster children once a month. The volunteers undergo 30 hours of training in one weekend and must fulfill all other requirements necessary to become licensed foster parents; COG reimburses licensing costs. The goal is to license 100 weekend foster parents.

"Providing respite care for the District's foster children will help keep licensed parents motivated to continue their valuable service to the community," says Washington Mayor Anthony Williams. "The program will not only provide foster parents with the opportunity to rest, but it will also increase the number of caring, supportive adults in the lives of our city's foster children."

On any given day, 6,000 children are in foster care in metropolitan Washington. About 1,400 of those children are eligible for adoption but have no adoptive placement identified for them.

Since receiving local media coverage about the Volunteer Respite Program, Work of Heart Director Terri Braxton says her phone has been ringing off the hook. Many of the callers tell her they have been considering becoming foster parents, and volunteering is a good way to find out if the job is right for them. "We've gotten thousands of calls," Braxton says.

"We had no idea we'd get this response."

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