Imagine being a parent whose child has been referred into the child welfare system. You’ve been in touch with the caseworker. You’re deeply worried about your son or daughter. You are committed to following the plan that you and the caseworker co-created. But as you juggle the other stresses and demands of day-to-day life, you’re frustrated by the lack of visibility into what’s happening with your case. It’s hard to keep track of the process, to provide the requested information and to know exactly what services and support are available to help.

Now imagine being a caseworker who’s responding to a report of abuse of neglect. As you pull up to a family’s home, you know little about the household you’re preparing to enter. It may be a home where this is first sign of trouble; it may be a household that has been roiled by violence and/or substance abuse. In either case, having better insights about the child and family would be immensely valuable in following up on the report. It would help you feel safer in the moment, and even more important, it would reduce the likelihood that you’d make a positive error (leaving this child at home and in grave danger) OR a negative error (inflicting the trauma of foster care when the child could have stayed safely at home).

If you truly put yourself in both pairs of shoes, your heart should beat a little faster and your stomach should feel a little nervous. That’s because keeping children safe – while strengthening and shoring up their families – is important, high-stakes work. Too often, lack of visibility and access to data have made this work even more difficult.

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There are many valid reasons the child welfare system and its ecosystem partners have been fanatical about protecting the privacy of the families it serves. But we’ve reached a time where systems are capable of both safeguarding privacy and supporting greater data sharing – enabling what we call “boundaryless insight sharing” to improve service delivery.

When we design services around people, not agencies, we can offer better “shoes” for everyone in the child welfare system. Stakeholders’ experiences become less painful, more direct journeys to their shared destination: better outcomes.

Getting there requires envisioning service experiences that are hyper-relevant to citizens; embracing technology to build adaptive engagement channels and deliver at scale; and rewiring the culture for agencies to work with partners in new ways.

In child welfare, we can start by focusing on two key opportunities:

  1. External web portals

This opportunity addresses the difficult, frustrating journey many families currently experience. But an external web portal can also reduce friction for and improve the experience of many other stakeholders – including foster families and service providers.

If you work in child welfare, you may be all too familiar with slow, manual processes. That seems to be especially common when it comes to financial transactions. I’ve personally witnessed processes that involve multiple handoffs, adding-machine ticker tape and handwritten ledgers. Yet, outside the realm of child welfare, we’ve all grown accustomed to tracking status, uploading documents and completing transactions with a few taps and swipes on our smartphones. Why should anyone be faxing when we can scan or photograph documents using our phones?

By creating external web portals, child welfare agencies can bring a host of financial and other processes into the digital age. And we can truly put families first by giving parents full visibility into the status of their case, their upcoming appointments and the resources available to them.

  1. Bidirectional data sharing

This opportunity aims to help caseworkers be safer, more informed and, ultimately, more effective at evaluating situations and making decisions in the best interests of families and their kids. When child welfare agencies join other organizations in sharing data, caseworkers gain a fuller picture of a family’s situation.

Ideally, that picture will include:

  • Educational data. Today caseworkers may have to make a dozen phone calls to follow up on a single report of excessive absenteeism. With a way to automatically share attendance data, caseworkers would be able to focus on the children and families most in need of support.
  • Healthcare data. Bringing in billing and claims data would give caseworkers some insight into a child’s journey as a healthcare consumer. For example, if someone reports a parent for not obtaining needed care or not providing needed medicine to their child, these data sources could help a caseworker confirm or dispel that report.
  • Public safety data. Police reports, adult probation data and information from juvenile justice organizations would be invaluable in helping a caseworker assess a child’s situation. In the absence of any recent law enforcement records, a caseworker may feel more confident leaving a child in the care of their parent. But if police have responded to domestic violence reports in the past month, a caseworker may recognize a need to probe dee per and provide greater supports to the family.

When you know better, you do better. It’s time we empower child welfare stakeholders – starting with biological parents and caseworkers – with better access to better information. And we can’t revert to age-old excuses for NOT doing so. The technology makes it possible. It’s up to us to make it happen.

How is your child welfare agency working to improve data sharing internally and externally?

Molly Tierney

Managing Director – Public Service, Child Welfare, North America

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