It’s been about a quarter-century since child welfare organizations implemented major new technology systems. Now they’re modernizing their technology. For many, the process of rolling out a child welfare information system (CWIS) isn’t going as quickly as they might have anticipated. I don’t purport to understand every reason why. But from my experience as a child welfare leader and consultant, I am observing two phenomena that I believe are creating resistance.

Child welfare: More art than science

Technologists are critical to any CWIS implementation. Yet few, if any, have prior experience configuring and deploying systems specifically for children and family services. Even if they’ve been focused on systems for health and human services, they likely have much more experience with integrated eligibility or child support solutions.

This experience is no doubt valuable, but the way those systems need to function is night-and-day different from child welfare. Integrated eligibility and child support systems rely on calculations; input information and get an answer. But in child welfare, there are no algorithms to guide decision making. It is human “calculus” in which emotions are intense and stakes are incredibly high.

I know from being on the front lines that caseworkers and supervisors need technology that guides—but does not make—decisions. As practitioners, I suggest we lean in to help technologists understand the unique nuances of our work. Let’s help put child welfare technology in context so technology can become a caseworker’s most valuable tool.

CWIS needs to be ‘smartphone simple’

As I mentioned, the child welfare workforce has been using the same technology for about 25 years. The not-so-secret truth is that most caseworkers and supervisors loathe their current systems. They’re frustrated by out-of-order workflows and by the fact that it can take 10 steps to answer one question. I am not shocked that with this taste in their mouths, they’re resistant to anything technology related.

And yet, nearly every one of them now relies on a smartphone in their personal lives. Their smartphones are so valuable that they carry them on their person almost all the time. This technology helps them in a myriad of ways: Communicating with family. Updating grocery lists. Getting directions to an unfamiliar destination. And when they get a new smartphone, they don’t need a massive three-ring binder to train them on how to use it. They power it up, and off they go.

We need CWIS solutions to be that intuitive and indispensable. But, first, I believe we need to show the child welfare workforce that this is possible. I want them to feel a sense of anticipation about a CWIS solution that will be as simple, easy and valuable to their day-to-day work as their smartphone is to their day-to-day lives.

Although CWIS is a new technology, neither of these forces of resistance is technical in nature. These are adaptive challenges. To make real progress, let’s devote more time to adapting the mindsets of the technical talent who will bring CWIS systems to life and the mission-focused caseworkers who will use them.

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Let’s help put child welfare technology in context so technology can become a caseworker’s most valuable tool.

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Molly Tierney

Managing Director – Public Service, Child Welfare, North America