Children's Voice July/August 2007

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Child Welfare and Technology

For child welfare agencies in the digital age, technology is only as revolutionary as the plan that drives it.

By Mary Bissell and Jennifer Miller

When Arlene King goes on a case visit, she brings experience, compassion, and a handheld device that rivals James Bond's. Her pocket-sized PDA (personal data assistant) lets her take notes and photographs, record interviews, and file forms electronically. Using a voice recognition program, she has her conversations with clients automatically transcribed and downloaded into her case files.

Like the handhelds used by rental car companies and overnight delivery services, the customized computer, standard issue to King and her colleagues, helps her agency capture the most accurate, up-to-the-minute data possible. With reliable information, her agency can identify existing services gaps, comply with federal reporting requirements, and make the case for additional state funding.

Most important, King's child welfare agency is already linked to all other human service agencies in the county. Interagency data sharing means the children and families on her caseload are more likely to receive the full range of services they need, when they need them.

Sound too good to be true? In this case, it is. Arlene and her agency are fictional, but law enforcement officers, health care providers, and businesses worldwide are already using this kind of technology, and it's making organizations more efficient and improving the lives of workers and their clients. Despite rapid technological advances, however, many of these innovations have not yet made their way to the nation's child welfare agencies.

According to a recent Annie E. Casey Foundation report, federal, state, and local agencies have spent more than $2.8 billion on child welfare technologies over the past 10 years, with little measurable effect on the lives of vulnerable children and families. A 2003 General Accounting Office report found that "despite efforts to implement comprehensive information systems [in child welfare], several factors affected states' ability to collect reliable data," including inaccurate data entry, insufficient caseworker training, disparities between state and federal data requirements, and lack of federal guidance on implementing reliable systems.

Progress has been made in integrating technology at the federal level and in specific jurisdictions, but child welfare still lags behind business and other social service fields in harnessing information technology (IT) solutions that improve day-to-day decision making, optimize case plans, and maximize children's safety and stability.

Even for states awash in data, appropriate expertise or strategic guidance is not always available so it can be used most effectively for improving outcomes for children and families. In many states, child welfare agencies can be data rich and knowledge poor.

Leveraging Cutting-Edge Technologies

With generous support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Stewards of Change, a new organization dedicated to crosssector innovation in the child welfare field, and the Yale School of Management brought together a dynamic team of business, technology, and child welfare leaders to explore more effective ways to apply emerging IT to child welfare management and practice. During a conference in New Haven, Connecticut, last year, Stewards of Change leaders and conference participants identified several guiding principles to drive technological and strategic change in child welfare and beyond.

Participants confirmed what child welfare leaders are already learning: Technology, no matter how transformative, is not a panacea for the complex challenges facing today's child protection system. Responding to unpredictable human behavior in the most difficult circumstances, child welfare leaders have been able to integrate technology effectively only when they are able to craft and implement a strong strategic vision to shape the agency's overall philosophy, operations, and practice.

A successful blueprint requires the entire agency, from senior administrators to frontline caseworkers, to understand and support the mission. "Agencies need a strategic business plan to drive the technology, not the other way around," explains Daniel Stein, a former corporate marketing executive and cofounder of Stewards of Change. "Technology can be a powerful tool, but it's only one of many that successful child welfare leaders are using to create and sustain change."

New Solutions for Old Systems

Responding to federal funding opportunities and evolving strategic priorities, 42 states and the District of Columbia have started working on planning, developing, and implementing their Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information Systems (SACWIS) to report on federal outcome requirements for children in care. While sporadic progress has been made to streamline and integrate child welfare agency IT systems, many states still struggle with the legacy of antiquated systems unable to satisfy multiple reporting requirements and day-to-day data needs.

"The reality is that many states are still 'making do' with IT systems that weren't created with their specific needs in mind," says Kathleen Feely, Managing Director of Casey Strategic Consulting. "As a result, many agencies are spending a lot of time and money maintaining and updating systems that were never designed for them in the first place."

But there is good news. Dissatisfaction with current systems, along with growing federal demand for more system accountability, has led to increased reliance on "commercial off-the-shelf " (COTS) products already being used for SACWIS upgrades and, in newer systems, to improve data analysis and reporting tools. Because they are much less expensive and require less specialized maintenance than traditional government systems, COTS products, used in combination with other emerging technologies, offer a promising alternative for streamlining older systems to better meet current child welfare technology and system needs.

Interoperability: Breaking Down Social Service Silos

Another significant challenge in using technology effectively to improve child and family outcomes is the widespread "siloization" of human services technology within state governments. Different funding sources, accountability measures, and competing agency priorities can result in dozens of separate technology systems serving the very same families. Incompatible systems result in duplication, poor service delivery, and wasted taxpayer dollars.

"Most states and counties have a patchwork of agencies and IT systems that can't talk to each other," notes Vernon Brown, CEO of Moss Beach Homes, a child welfare service agency with 31 sites throughout California. "It doesn't make sense for the agencies, and the lack of coordination hurts children and families."

To remedy this problem, Stewards of Change conference participants recommended the next phase of child welfare technology innovation focus on interoperability--allowing IT systems across multiple social service agencies to share information. With the advent of relatively inexpensive "data dictionaries," some child welfare agencies are already using these new technologies to translate information between disparate computer systems.

Strong Leadership for a Data-Driven Culture

As with all efforts to transform the child welfare system, strong leadership is essential to support a management team and workforce that understands, values, and actively integrates data into policies and practices.

In too many cases, frontline workers have little investment or confidence in collecting data because they have never had a meaningful opportunity to see its effect on their daily lives. As a result, individuals who are required to input the data on the ground level have no ownership in the process and no evidence to prove the information was worth gathering in the first place.

"Most caseworkers who spend time gathering information, don't necessarily see how it can really be used to make their jobs easier or improve the lives of their clients" explains Stewards of Change cofounder Michael Smith. "Child welfare leaders need to provide the training and tools to build a culture that shows data in action."

To create a data-driven culture, agency heads must also do what businesses have done effectively for years: invest in and empower a chief information officer (CIO)--a top-level manager responsible for shaping the agency's technology vision and overseeing its implementation at all management levels. That means fully integrating the CIO into overall management of and strategic planning for the agency, not just to solve technical glitches or update systems.

Connecting with Courts

Like child welfare agencies, dependency courts are also running to catch up with technologies to better track cases, manage caseloads, and communicate with human service agencies more effectively.

"Too often, permanency for a child is put on hold because judges can't get basic, reliable information," says Nancy Sidote Salyers, a retired judge and Codirector of Fostering Results, a national education and outreach campaign to support foster care reform. "The information exists, but it's a matter of making it easily accessible to those who need it to make decisions. Eliminating delay with timely information always translates into better decisions."

Fully integrated technology systems ensure courts, agencies, and other social service providers are able to access immediate information on children and families to reduce the backlog of children waiting on court decisions and vital services.

Empowering Workers

In addition to data collection and analysis, cutting-edge technology must also be adapted to serve the needs and workloads of frontline administrators and caseworkers. Just as businesses have invested in customizing equipment for workers, state policymakers and child welfare workers must also receive targeted technological support so they can spend less time on paperwork and more time with children and families.

New integrated handheld technologies, Tablet PCs, web smart phones, and verification technologies are used widely and successfully in other fields with proven results but haven't made it to the frontlines of child welfare. Making these devices available not only would save caseworkers time, it would help recruit and retain young caseworkers who have grown up to expect cuttingedge technology in their homes and workplaces.

In some cases, concern about protecting the confidentiality of children and families discourages the use of new technologies that allow child welfare agencies to communicate more effectively with other social service systems and the courts. As a result, child welfare leaders and workers may not have access to accurate, real-time data to help them make better decisions on behalf of children in care.

Just as timely data is not available to workers, it's also unavailable to the public and policymakers responsible for holding agencies accountable for child and family outcomes. Political leaders considering child welfare reforms often must rely on two-year-old data when new technologies provide more capacity to share legally protected information and other sensitive data without compromising families' privacy.

Using Data to Predict and Improve Outcomes

Although many jurisdictions are using technology more effectively than ever to collect and analyze data, few are using it to help predict and change outcomes for children and families.

The business world uses "predictive analytics" to forecast consumer behavior and modify products to meet anticipated needs and challenges. Some hospitality chains, for example, analyze consumer data to predict which customers might switch hotels, then customize a promotional package to prevent their defection.

"In the same way an insurance company can predict outcomes based on hundreds or even thousands of factors," says Michael Smith of Stewards of Change, "the child welfare field can also use data points to build new models for more proactive case management."

Predictive analytics help caseworkers determine a child's risk level, the type of services that would be most helpful to a family, and a case plan to maximize a family's chances of staying together safely.

Helping Child Welfare Reach It's Technology Potential

Efforts to use technology to improve outcomes for children and families at risk, both inside and outside the child welfare system, are complex, especially given the laws and regulations designed to protect private information. But just as health care providers and financial institutions have determined that the advantages of well-designed technologies outweigh their risks, the child welfare field must also continue to pursue new strategies to inject creativity and connectivity into its operating systems.

Mary Bissell and Jennifer Miller are partners in ChildFocus, a child welfare policy consulting, research, and strategic planning firm. Learn more at
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