Powering Better Child Welfare and Social Services

By Allen, Mark | Policy & Practice, August 2016 | Go to article overview

Powering Better Child Welfare and Social Services


Allen, Mark, Policy & Practice


Despite national spending on child welfare services reaching $28.2 billion (according to the latest data from 2012), caseworkers across the country are burdened with heavy caseloads and cumbersome tools. With the welfare of hundreds of thousands of children at stake, anything that can make the day-to-day life of caseworkers easier would yield massive benefits, both socially and financially.

This is not a new understanding. In 1993, the federal government developed regulations around a statewide automated child welfare information system (SACWIS). This technology was supposed to simplify the process of information gathering and streamline case management for states that adopted it. Unfortunately, in many cases, it did not achieve these results, and over the last 23 years many states have been left with a myriad of legacy systems that are not always effective.

Proposed changes in federal rules could allow states to modernize their systems with much simpler and more efficient solutions. One of the most critical components of success for solutions is a business rules engine (BRE). A BRE is an advanced software technology that helps child welfare agencies automate rules that govern decision-making, as well as easily make changes when regulations change. This kind of agility can make the daily lives of caseworkers far easier. Crucially, a BRE can allow them to leverage existing data to make better decisions that could positively impact children and their families.

The 23-Year Legacy of SACWIS

The initial goal of SACWIS regulations was to establish a comprehensive, one-size-fits-all case management system for agencies in a particular jurisdiction. While not required, 34 states have adopted SACWIS to provide child welfare services. States hoped to make data collection easier and better determine eligibility for Title IV-E, a reimbursement that states get from the federal government for the costs of administering child welfare and foster care programs.

However, many systems have been hindered by severe glitches. In Michigan, eight months after implementing their $61 million system in 2014, they were still dealing with delayed payments to foster care providers, lost case files and an inability to close cases, among other issues. Officials were fixing up to 100 defects per month.

The list goes on: In Tennessee, caseworkers have been dealing with bugs in their system since it was created in 2010, reporting that even entering data about child visits--a basic task critical to daily work--required herculean effort. In Oregon, foster care parents weren't getting their payments on time, and caseworkers had difficulty accessing data about response times to child abuse reports. In 2007, Ohio's $92 million SACWIS developed data issues that could have caused agencies to lose track of foster children.

Technology and child welfare practices have undergone significant changes since 1993, and many agencies complain their SACWIS is slow and inefficient. In Michigan, system malfunctions required submitting an IT ticket that took two to three days to resolve. For a child, "two or three days could be a matter of life and death," said Bill VanDriessche, a Michigan child protective services worker who testified at a 2015 state hearing about SACWIS issues.

New Proposals Make Modernization Easier

In August 2015, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) proposed changes that could greatly improve automation and data collection within case management systems. The new system, dubbed a comprehensive child welfare information system (CCWIS), will have key differences from the SACWIS it replaces. For example, it will be bound by 14 requirements, rather than the 51 provisions regulating SACWIS. It's easy to imagine how that change alone will greatly simplify implementation.

The proposal allows states to enhance or replace their existing systems with a CCWIS, letting agencies move onto the next generation of case management systems that are built on newer technologies that are more interoperable and more modular. …

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