Child Welfare AND Technology

By Bissell, Mary; Miller, Jennifer et al. | Children's Voice, July/August 2007 | Go to article overview

Child Welfare AND Technology


Bissell, Mary, Miller, Jennifer, Cherna, Marc, Children's Voice


For child welfare agencies in the digital age, technology is only as revolutionary as the plan that drives it.

When Arlene King goes on a case visit, she brings experience, compassion, and a handheld device that rivals James Bond's. Her pocket-sized PDA (personal data assistant) lets her take notes and photographs, record interviews, and file forms electronically. Using a voice recognition program, she has her conversations with clients automatically transcribed and downloaded into her case files.

Like the handhelds used by rental car companies and overnight delivery services, the customized computer, standard issue to King and her colleagues, helps her agency capture the most accurate, up-to-the-minute data possible. With reliable information, her agency can identify existing services gaps, comply with federal reporting requirements, and make the case for additional state funding.

Most important, King's child welfare agency is already linked to all other human service agencies in the county. Interagency data sharing means the children and families on her caseload are more likely to receive the full range of services they need, when they need them.

Sound too good to be true? In this case, it is. Arlene and her agency are fictional, but law enforcement officers, health care providers, and businesses worldwide are already using this kind of technology, and it's making organizations more efficient and improving the lives of workers and their clients. Despite rapid technological advances, however, many of these innovations have not yet made their way to the nation's child welfare agencies.

According to a recent Annie E. Casey Foundation report, federal, state, and local agencies have spent more than $2.8 billion on child welfare technologies over the past 10 years, with little measurable effect on the lives of vulnerable children and families. A 2003 General Accounting Office report found that "despite efforts to implement comprehensive information systems [in child welfare], several factors affected states' ability to collect reliable data," including inaccurate data entry, insufficient caseworker training, disparities between state and federal data requirements, and lack of federal guidance on implementing reliable systems.

Progress has been made in integrating technology at the federal level and in specific jurisdictions, but child welfare still lags behind business and other social service fields in harnessing information technology (IT) solutions that improve day-to-day decision making, optimize case plans, and maximize children's safety and stability.

Even for states awash in data, appropriate expertise or strategic guidance is not always available so it can be used most effectively for improving outcomes for children and families. In many states, child welfare agencies can be data rich and knowledge poor.

Leveraging Cutting-Edge Technologies

With generous support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Stewards of Change, a new organization dedicated to crosssector innovation in the child welfare field, and the Yale School of Management brought together a dynamic team of business, technology, and child welfare leaders to explore more effective ways to apply emerging IT to child welfare management and practice. During a conference in New Haven, Connecticut, last year, Stewards of Change leaders and conference participants identified several guiding principles to drive technological and strategic change in child welfare and beyond.

Participants confirmed what child welfare leaders are 1 already learning: Technology, no matter how transformative, is not a panacea for the complex challenges facing today's child protection system. Responding to unpredictable human behavior in the most difficult circumstances, child welfare] leaders have been able to integrate technology effectively only when they are able to craft and implement a strong strategic vision to shape the agency's overall philosophy, operations, and practice. …

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