Child welfare experts urge data sharing and the use of analytics to protect children, families


I remember when I first started in public child welfare 21 years ago and the word "outcomes" was introduced. At that time, we believed that if it felt good and children and families seemed happy that we were doing a good job - those were our outcomes. We were wrong. We now know the differences between outputs and outcomes and the importance of measuring multiple indicators to determine positive results and identify areas of improvement.

This point was brought home at the recent National Association of Public Child Welfare Administrators Annual Meeting. Fittingly, the tagline for the three day meeting was "Improvement, Reform, Impact". I applaud the state and local child welfare leaders who gathered throughout the weekend to learn and share new and innovative approaches to improving service and outcomes for children in child welfare systems.

Several major topics were covered, however, a key theme throughout the meeting was the importance and need to utilize data in an effort to enhance improvements and deepen impact. Topics included breaking down information silos to integrate data and improve decision making, the future of analytics and predictive modeling, mobilizing outcomes and using research and evidence to drive reforms.

It was heartening to see this as, even though we know the importance of measurement and evidence, many organizations have yet to create a results-oriented culture that prioritizes the use of data. Some states and many county administered agencies have yet to implement true Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information Systems (SACWIS), or case management systems that allow them to collect and analyze child and family specific data timely and accurately. How are they measuring success and better informing case practice?

Many public child welfare agencies have positioned themselves to truly analyze and use data from their case management systems to inform practice. Still, more work must be done to improve data sharing with other public agencies and create linkages that better inform practitioners when making life impacting decisions for children.

One expert stated "we are really, really far behind on how we share and use data" to benefit our most vulnerable population. Data linkages and data sharing across multiple public agencies can better inform the workforce and positively impact child welfare work for years to come. Some are doing this, but most are not.

In addition to linking and sharing data, state and local agencies must develop data-informed cultures that foster innovative and proactive case practice and service delivery. The primary goal must always be to prevent negative outcomes for children. This can be done via the use of predictive analytics to better inform government practice and drive child- and family-centered outcomes.

Predictive models are beginning to be developed in very few jurisdictions focused on risk of fatality or near-fatality, re-abuse, delayed permanency and failed reunifications. The use of predictive models provides workers and leaders with needed information to assist in the decision making process as to appropriate interventions, frequency and duration or interactions, and workload prioritization to name a few, all having a positive impact on outcomes for children and families.

One ex-state Commissioner and child welfare expert stated, “Predictive Analytics is the future of success in child welfare." Is the concept of predictive analytics today what outcomes was 21 years ago? If so, I hope that the field is prepared to act much quicker to improve services to children and families, proactively reform, and increase positive outcomes for our most vulnerable population.

The SAS State and Local Government practice is committed to partner with state and local leaders to innovate and change the way child welfare work is being done to ensure a lasting positive impact on children being touched by the foster care system. We believe data and analysis can help provide insight and tools for those striving to find the most positive outcomes for our children and youth and we are dedicated to finding ways to bring awareness and support to this critical issue.


About Author

Will Jones

Principal Industry Consultant

With over 21 years of human services experience, Will Jones is an expert in child welfare, juvenile justice and behavioral health services. As the Chief of Programs at Eckerd, one of the nation’s largest nonprofit child and family service organizations, Will helped the organization see substantial growth nationally in direct service work and consulting. He also served in leadership roles at three other award winning non-profit organizations. Early in his career, Will led the effort to make Orange County (FL)Youth Family Services Division the second public child welfare agency in the state to become COA accredited. He is married and a devoted husband and father to five children.

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