My name is Robert McKeagney, I am the Vice President for Program Operations for the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA). CWLA welcomes this opportunity to testify on behalf of our 1,000 public and private nonprofit child-serving member agencies nationwide for the hearing on “Improved Monitoring of Vulnerable Children.” We appreciate the interest this Subcommittee and other members of Congress have demonstrated to better ensure the safety of children. As underscored by the recent case in New Jersey, as well as other instances of abuse and deprivation that have come to public attention, we have not yet implemented a national child welfare system that offers sufficient assurance that all children will be protected.
The focus of today’s hearing is on the capacity of state child welfare agencies to effectively monitor the status of children in their care through the use of data within automated information systems, and to consider necessary improvements.
I am going to speak to you today from the combined perspectives of four vantage points. I have been fortunate during my career to have worked as a:
- National consultant during which time I have had in-depth working relationships with a substantial number of state child welfare programs and have been engaged in numerous reviews of national data quality;
- State administrator with responsibility for a broad range of federally funded programs;
- Child welfare program manager and supervisor at a local level; and
- Caseworker who investigated abuse and neglect complaints and managed foster care cases.
Within the context of each of these roles, I have had the opportunity to be involved with the design and use of child welfare information systems. These experiences have led me to believe that the most useful and accurate understanding of the challenges we face in this area must be based on these multiple perspectives.
CWLA is engaged on a daily basis with states in efforts to improve data management in support of a standard of direct service practice that will lead us to a consistently high level of safety and care for all children. Under contract to the Children’s Bureau, CWLA hosts the National Resource Center for Information Technology in Child Welfare (NRCITCW). This national resource center works with states around the implementation of SACWIS systems and their preparation for the federal Child and Family Service Reviews (CFSR). CWLA’s National Data Analysis System (NDAS) works with states in cooperation with the U.S. Children’s Bureau to create better understanding of the information that is already being reported on an annual basis. All fifty states (plus the District of Columbia) have been involved in an NDAS National Working Group that has conducted intensive reviews of federal reporting requirements and the comparability of information being reported by the states.
Most recently, CWLA has begun work on a federal grant to examine questions that have been generated by cases of children reported missing from foster care. In cooperation with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the state of Florida, and representatives of other states, we will examine policies and practices to develop models that will aid states in maintaining more effective tracking systems. This will include strategies to ensure adequate tracking of the location of children and youth in care and that regular visits occur. We will examine the use of SACWIS systems, the effectiveness of state reporting procedures, and the roles of casework staff and foster parents in overseeing the well-being of children.
Our work in this area will attempt to address a number of issues. As part of this project, we are examining definitions such as when a child is considered “missing” or “runaway”; looking at cases of children missing from foster care; parental abductions; and situations where a child’s location may be unknown to the child welfare agency but may be known by the local law enforcement agency. Prevention issues will also be examined, including a child’s risk for abduction, the stresses that may cause a child in foster care to leave, and the supports that may help these children at risk. Workforce issues will also be reviewed to ensure that caseworkers can monitor children and are properly trained so that incidents of runaways can be prevented.
Influences on the Information Systems
State child welfare information systems are largely defined by two major factors.
- Federal reporting requirements that include the broad framework within which specific data elements are defined and the overall functional capacity of an acceptable system. In relationship to these requirements, the implementation of the Child and Family Services Reviews (CFSR) as part of a heightened national effort at measurement and accountability, has reinforced the already powerful influence of this mandate.
- The unique needs of individual states, particularly as they apply to the demands of case management and individual financial record keeping.
This results in a national child welfare information system that is actually a collection of fifty-one different systems bound together principally by the need to report a core set of data elements to the federal government. Otherwise, the systems have evolved to be responsive to such things as unique state case practice standards; differing levels of authority between state and local jurisdictions; varying roles among state agencies; and the demands of well-established state finance and management systems. This has certainly reflected a sound strategy, given the differences among states. However, it has increased the overall complexity associated with the design and implementation of improved systems.
This degree of difficulty is reflected by the current status of state implementation of federally mandated SACWIS systems. Only five states have completed their SACWIS systems, despite the availability of federal funding at 75% of costs in 1993-1997, and the ongoing availability of 50% cost sharing. Another twenty-one states have achieved operational status but are at various stages within the assessment process. An additional twenty-one states are in planning, implementation, or pre-assessment status. Four states have not initiated any SACWIS activity.
Current Requirements of a State Information System
A quick review of the specific requirements that states must meet highlight the inherent complexities they face. Each system must incorporate at least eight different categories or “modules”. Within each of these categories or modules there is additional information that is gathered or recorded.
The eight areas of data include: intake such as the initial screening, investigation and assessment; eligibility, which also includes future re-determination of eligibility; case management, including a service plan, a review and on-going monitoring of the case; resource management which includes support for facilities, foster homes, and adoptive homes; court processing requirements which includes court documents notifications, tracking in the courts, and interaction with the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA); financial management of funds being spent; administration of the program; and interfaces with other systems and programs such as TANF, child support, Medicaid, and the child abuse and neglect data system. There are also optional features or systems that may be linked, such as state licensing, the state education system, and juvenile justice systems.
When all of this is put into practice, a system must have an effective operational capacity to do three principal things. It must support:
- State compliance with federal reporting requirements, including documentation of the states ability to meet federal outcome standards under Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA).
- Program management and decisionmaking, including provision of data necessary to track and analyze both short and long term indicators of individual and system performance.
- Case management on an ongoing daily basis.
The requirement to perform case management functions is perhaps the most important thing to appreciate about state information systems, particularly those designed to comply with SACWIS requirements. These systems are not simply for reporting purposes. They also must be fully integrated into the daily work of thousands of direct service staff as tracking and decisionmaking tools. Complete, accurate, and timely information about the status of individual children is essential to the process of providing supervision and care to children. The need to bring this capacity to life places a much higher demand on states at both the design and maintenance levels than would be the case if their information systems were simply reporting tools.
This level of information is exactly what an effective system of care demands, whether it is provided electronically or otherwise. A principal benefit of automated information systems, however, is to make it far more difficult to overlook a missing data element or step in a process. Consequently, the real cost of securing and maintaining this information becomes much clearer as the systems begin to generate long lists of missing information. This has heightened our awareness of the need to get beyond the admittedly complex technological aspects of the systems and to meet the even greater challenge of integrating these mandated information components into the ongoing casework process.
Each system is ultimately dependent on the skill and sophistication of the thousands of front-line caseworkers and supervisors, who are their principal users. This essential fact is at the root of both the effective use and the misuse of state information systems as tools in ensuring the safety and well-being of children. Individual children are protected through the actions of responsible adults, including child welfare caseworkers. Therefore, responsible and competent use of the data is the critical element in all information systems.
State tracking and case management systems are only as good as the information entered by caseworkers. The quality of this information is, in turn, a product of two key variables:
- capability of the caseworker, with support from a supervisor, to observe, gather, and evaluate pertinent information.
- investment of sufficient time, with complementary skill, to enter accurate and complete information into the automated system.
An information system becomes an effective tool when high quality information is produced and applied to future decisionmaking, both in terms of children’s needs and system accountability. Through a lens of child safety, this means that caseworkers must refer to prior records and place their current observations in the informed context of past patterns. Supervisors must do the same, but apply the same principles to the conduct of their staff as well as to children in their care. Finally, state administrators need to review timely reports of key system activities and events. They need to supplement this with solid longitudinal outcomes information in order to assure themselves that ongoing performance is consistent with both state and federal policy standards. Most importantly, everyone from caseworker to department head should be seeing comparable information and be fully aware that they are all managing to the same outcomes. This requires considerable skill at all levels, investments of time in analysis and communication, and a reasonably sophisticated institutional ability to package and present information. However, it also serves to transform data to increased knowledge and accountability.
I would like to share just a few examples of all too common SACWIS issues that negatively impact the ability of the case manager to make well informed decisions about the safety of children in out of home care and their needs for services and supports.
In many states (because definitions are state-specific), relatives are not licensed foster care providers and as such do not receive provider payments for the care of a child. Placements needing provider payments are entered into the computer in a more timely fashion that those placements not receiving payments. When caseloads are high, workers are forced to triage their time and children placed with relatives can, frequently, receive less attention from the case manager than is given to the paid providers resulting in service needs not being met and, possibly, unaddressed safety issues.
Data entry also occurs to support the generation of a payment to doctors and psychologists who provide services to a child. Again, when a worker prioritizes his/her time, a note about a visitation with a child may be delayed, as it does not directly affect a payment. Delayed entry could endanger the safety of a child if patterns of caretaker behavior are not promptly recorded and viewed in conjunction with prior notations.
All systems, regardless how well planned, developed and implemented, rely on the input provided by the human case manager. “Garbage in, garbage out” is an issue in the use of any automation system, but is proportionally increased when a system is not completely and fully utilized to its designed capabilities. When a child death, for example, is reported for a Child Protective Services investigation there are detailed procedures for the steps to take in the investigation of the death. Most procedures, however, do not include specific direction to make certain data entry notations in the automated computer system. Data entry can easily be neglected entirely or entered days, weeks, or even months later which calls into question the quality of the information. Incorrect, delayed or non-entry of information could endanger the life of other children in a family if an alleged perpetrator is not properly identified with the computer.
Due to the high level of case manager turnover, more reliance is put on the “memory” capacity of the computer system. When a child who is removed from home re-enters care the decisionmaking about placement options, services, and treatment is enhanced by the information about the prior experience in care. A properly trained case manager with a well designed computer system and time can find the prior record on a child and link the information, thus creating an accurate historical record to use in decisionmaking. A case manager with a poorly designed system, with little or no training and time, may not properly search within the computer records Or not search at all and create a new record, making it appear as this is the first time the child has entered care. The history trail of a child is lost when a duplicate record is created, and needed medical, social, psychological, and educational records are not available to support the case manager’s worker efforts.
The practical challenges facing state child welfare systems are well represented by the dynamics behind the well-publicized issue of children missing from foster care. 1 In the spring of 2002, the issue of children missing from care received national attention as a result of a case in Florida. After that, additional states began to survey their systems and also concluded that not all their children in care were accounted for. Michigan determined that 302 children were missing. In California over 700 children were unaccounted for. In the fall of 2002, the 393 children under the supervision of the Florida Department of Children and Families who were unaccounted for and classified as missing were separated into two major categories: 86% were identified as runaway