Improve child welfare through analytics

A $220-million-a-day concern

Federal, state and local agencies together spend about US$220 million a day in the US to protect and promote child welfare, prevent child abuse and neglect, and provide support and interventions that promote safety, permanency and well-being for children, according to Prevent Child Abuse America.

Could those millions of dollars be doing more? Yes! There is tremendous potential for child welfare agencies to use data and analytics to prevent child abuse and improve outcomes for children and families. However, few agencies have established the data-driven culture that’s required to advance both practice and policy. SAS brought together a panel of child welfare advocates to explore the potential benefits – and how public and private agencies can establish a culture that not only encourages but requires data-driven management techniques to prevent child abuse and ensure child well-being.

Data helps protect children and prevent child abuse

Using data to improve results seems self-evident in more quantitative fields, such as financial services and marketing. But data can play a big role in supplementing the instincts, compassion and understanding of child services administrators, social workers and caregivers when it comes to child welfare. Where personal experience leads you down one path, data can prove or disprove the hypothesis on that path and even define the paths that are options. Data can inform agencies on how to apply limited resources in the most productive ways – and can prevent them from investing in unproductive directions.

“The absence of a data-driven culture often leads to a scattershot approach to agencies’ attempts to reach their goals or improve their performance,” said Jerry Milner, Vice President for Child Welfare Practice at the Center for the Support of Families. “Having data to guide our work helps us to be more focused on what we’re trying to achieve with children and families. Rather than trying to treat symptoms, or going after something that really isn’t going to deliver the results we need, data can point us in the direction where we need to focus our efforts.”

Which interventions will work? Which ones won’t? “Any outcome can be evaluated through the use of advanced analytics,” said Carole Hussey, Associate Manager in the Human Services Practice at Public Consulting Group. “It really is critical to use data to establish how you’re going to work and what you’re going to work toward.”

The absence of data-driven culture often leads to a scattershot approach to agencies’ attempts to reach their goals or improve their performance. Having data to guide our work helps us to be more focused on what we’re trying to achieve with children and families. Jerry Milner Center for the Support of Families

The value of a data-driven culture

The greatest data and analytics in the world won’t have any effect if they don’t fuel a decision or change something to prevent child abuse or improve child welfare. That requires a culture where people understand, value and demand fact-based decisions and strategies.

Few social services agencies have reached that point, said Milner. “A lot of social workers will say, ‘I’m not interested in the data; I want to work with children and families.’ [To change that attitude], the data has to be relevant to the people who will use it.

“If I’m a social worker or supervisor, and I say I’m all about family-centered practice, how can I not be interested in what the data is telling me about engaging fathers, for instance? If I’m interested in permanence for children in foster care, how can I not be interested in the data about success of older youth leaving the foster care system to independence? Making that connection back to the mission is a real hook.”

Another hook is to show how an analytics system to prevent child abuse can actually free up more time for social workers to spend with children and families. Recent work allocation studies have shown that child services caseworkers spend 35-45 percent of their time on administrative duties and less than 25 percent on client-facing activities. Technology can help flip those numbers.

8 tips for advancing a data-driven culture in child services

  1. Get leadership buy-in. Have a strong, stated commitment to data-driven decision making as a core value that has consistent buy-in, involvement and investment from leadership.
  2. Look beyond compliance. “One of the biggest challenges is making data relevant and valued in the field, not just seen as a hammer,” said Susan Smith, Director of Data Advocacy for Casey Family Programs. “It’s about engaging front-line workers and making a clear connection to outcomes.”
  3. Integrate data for big-picture perspective. For example, getting a clear picture of a child’s risk would typically require data from six to 10 government agencies. Case agents don’t have to pick up the phone and call all these agencies. A child welfare analytics system streamlines the process by retrieving relevant data from those various sources – departments of health, education and corrections, for example – and importing it into one database.
  4. “Without that shared data, we focus on small process measures in our day-to-day work, such as how many visits were made, and we have a hard time getting a true picture of child and family outcomes,” said Smith.
  5. Be very strategic about what you track. Don’t just generate more reports and indicators. “Use data as the opportunity to prioritize what’s most important and where we expect to get the largest benefit from the efforts we make,” said Milner.
  6. Score some early wins. It’s hard to sell an idea, but everybody wants to buy into a proven success. “Social workers, who are dealing with high-stress situations every day, need to be able to see how this really impacts the work they’re doing out there,” said Milner.
  7. Think continuously improving process. Ideally, data plays into many stages of the process – in allocating resources, tracking the delivery of services and assessing outcomes – all of which yields new insights that are fed back into the first step for even better decisions the next time around.
  8. Keep it simple. You don’t have to become a statistician. “Some of the biggest success stories I’ve seen have been social workers who realized how useful the data was to them in working with children and families, but they couldn’t tell you a thing about how the data got computed or calculated,” said Milner.
  9. Own it. Don’t let child welfare analytics be somebody else’s business. “If the data is going to be useful, it’s going to be a part of the [internal] culture,” said Milner. It’s not something you outsource.

The impact of data on child welfare decisions

“I don’t think there are any outcomes out there that are irrelevant to the data,” said Milner. “The data may be harder to collect for some outcomes than for others, but the use of data is entirely relevant to all the outcomes we’re concerned with in child welfare.”

“The decisions we make on behalf of a child or family in the system are often traumatic from a child’s point of view,” said Smith. “When we can use data to make better decisions about child removal, about when to send a child home, about any of the steps throughout the child welfare system – and we’re able to minimize that trauma – that’s key.”

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