Children's Voice Mar/Apr 2009

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Spotlight On

Our Kids Caseworkers Go Digital in South Florida

In South Florida, the digital transition has already begun--in fact, in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, it's already complete. But this digital transition doesn't have anything to do with television broadcast signals; it's all about helping caseworkers at CWLA member agency Our Kids go paperless.

Our Kids has put 250 mobile devices into the hands of caseworkers as part of OK Connect, one piece of a three-prong project. Each "device" is actually two things: a lightweight Panasonic laptop and a Samsung BlackJack cell phone that together make social workers' jobs more efficient. They can access all their case files and make updates from the field.

Icier Ladder and Keenan Knight, caseworkers from the Family Resource Center, one of Our Kids, Inc.'s agencies.
          Photos courtesy of Our Kids, Inc.

Fran Allegra, executive director of Our Kids, explained the project began with "the desire to give caseworkers wireless, ubiquitous access to these files." Our Kids wanted to put "21st Century, off-the-shelf technology in their hands."

An additional motive was to get all of Our Kids' workers on the same page technologically. Our Kids is something of a supergroup agency, an umbrella organization that oversees several direct-service agencies in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. Each one had different policies: not all agencies provided phones for their caseworkers. The OK Connect initiative leveled the playing field.

OK Connect was actually the second step of the project. Before social workers could access case files from the field, those files had to be put in an online database. Allegra described the massive scope of that undertaking, scanning 3.5 million pieces of paper. "That's 15,000 volumes of records in four different file rooms located across two counties," she says. "We scanned it and created a nice, very friendly interface. Where you click on a child's name, you will see it all pathed and laid out like it was a paper file." Allegra continued that it took about two years to organize, six months to scan, and three months to build the interface for the documents.

Throughout the process, Our Kids held a dozen focus groups with social workers and supervisors to ensure the final product would fit their needs. The feedback opportunities didn't end there. With each scanned page of the report, the system included a button to click if the document was illegible or misfiled. And after the system was set up and the OK Connect mobile devices were handed out, Our Kids planned ahead. "We had to augment the number of people we had working in our help desk section," Allegra says. "We had to make sure that there was enough support and connectivity."

The laptops and phones are very secure: "They're all encrypted, all Lojacked, they can be remotely disabled," Allegra explained. Access to the online database of case files is password-protected for appropriate users, which has recently expanded to include the attorneys on staff at the Department of Children and Families.

With Xora software from AT&T, the network for the 3G wireless BlackJack phones, social workers can upload information directly into Florida's statewide automatic child welfare information system (SACWIS). "We configured it to tie into our SACWIS system," Allegra says. "When they go to take a picture of a child--which is required at certain intervals--the software will actually call up your client list." The photo and information about it, including where and when it was taken, is automatically uploaded without any extra input from the caseworker.

Linking to SACWIS has created some drawbacks, however. Allegra says that there are limitations on which material Florida's SACWIS can accept electronically. "We want to take this much farther with a lot of things," she says. "We're ready right now to go to electronic forms…the home visit form being one of them, the judicial review form being another. We would like to go to as much automation as possible."

The third part of the project, still ongoing, is called OK At Home. This provides personal computers to foster homes, complete with age-appropriate tutoring software from Houghton-Mifflin and high speed Internet connections through AT&T.

Allegra is proud to be part of this multifaceted digital revolution, and hopes to take it further in southern Florida while inspiring others throughout the state and the rest of the country to take advantage of the available technology. "We just want to keep pushing the envelope to bring more technology into this field," Allegra says. Governor Charlie Crist visited Our Kids to learn about the program, and in last year's State of the State address he said that more non-recurring state funds could be used for similar initiatives.

Learning to Heal

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently highlighted CWLA member the Family Resource Center and its therapeutic preschool, which provides a place for young victims of abuse and neglect to heal and learn. In 2007, 40% of the 6, 576 children substantiated as abused or neglected in Missouri were under age 5. The 35-year-old school serves about a dozen of these children at a time, and four instructors and two therapists work with them for at least six months. Many are able to enroll in regular preschool or kindergarten after their time learning and playing. Visit for more information.

Recognizing Differences

The Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network (JASMYN) planned a training session for Duval County, Florida, foster care workers to help understand young people who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. JASMYN provides free health services to at-risk and homeless youth, ages 13 to 23; about 260 of 400 youth served by JASMYN reported having been in the child welfare system in the past. CWLA member Family Support Services of North Florida, Inc., a lead agency in Duval County, and other representatives of a task force were helping to organize the event.

Safe at HomeBase

HomeBase Youth Services in Phoenix recently underwent a $6 million renovation, updating an apartment complex turned into dorm-style housing for the area's at-risk youth, The Arizona Republic reported. Volunteers from the nonprofit agency participate in a street-outreach program and help homeless youth get set up at HomeBase. Funding for the program comes mostly from philanthropists and businesses. Founded in 1991, the agency serves 1,300 youth each year, teaching them strategies that help them shift from a day-to-day survivalist view to one that emphasizes education and work. Visit or call 602-263-7773 to learn more about HomeBase.

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