When social workers from Casey Family Services’ Massachusetts Division received a referral from the State Department of Children and Families for 15-year-old Carla,* they compiled the usual data: family history, foster care placements, special needs, school performance, health, important connections, and contacts.
What made this process different is that instead of having to sort through and complete mountains of cumbersome records to piece together the information they needed, the social workers used a new, web-based tool that put all the key data at their fingertips.
They were using Casebook, an Internet-based application that adopts some of the same social networking tools people use every day at home and at work to help child welfare professionals record, catalog, and communicate comprehensive information vital in linking foster youth to the most effective and appropriate sources of help—and even to permanent, loving families.
The philosophy behind Casebook is that these 21st century technologies have the potential to dramatically improve outcomes for vulnerable families. Says Kathleen Feely, the Casey Foundation’s vice president for innovations, “We believe the advent of new technologies in social networking and tools for analyzing data, which have proven their value in the entertainment and consumer products industries as well as in public health and emergency response, will help resolve many of the problems and gaps in the current child welfare reporting systems.”
In Carla’s case, the quick access to information that Casebook provided—including histories of two of her siblings—enabled Casey social workers to work with the state to help Carla reconnect with her birth mother and siblings.
“Casebook allowed us to easily access key information on Carla’s two siblings we had already worked with, to see the connections they already had and where they were, and to have all that information without starting from scratch,” notes Sheila Fitzgerald, a team leader in Casey Family Services’ Massachusetts Division. “Being able to build those bonds and strengthen those relationships has taken this case in a totally different direction. And Carla is very happy because she now has regular, consistent contact with her mother and sisters.”
The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s system reform work has underscored the importance of using accurate, timely, and comparable data to make sound decisions about vulnerable children and families.
But unfortunately, all too often caseworkers and supervisors must make critical, life-shaping decisions based on the fragmented, inaccurate, and out-of-date information that state child welfare systems and their partner organizations report. At the same time, managers lack the ability to spot trends, deploy services, allocate funds effectively, and easily access data that would help improve performance across jurisdictions.
The information technology systems widely used across state child welfare agencies were designed to help states comply with federal fiscal and program reporting. But experts say these systems are tremendously time-consuming for workers and do not provide data or software of sufficient quality to support effective, coordinated decision-making that factors in family history and context.
Casebook uses web 2.0 technologies to solve these problems. For example, Casebook has tools that enable workers to compile a rich case history behind the scenes, helping new team members get up to speed immediately. Automatic alerts, reminders, and checkpoints keep case management on track, encouraging collective problem-solving and information sharing. The expectation is that these improvements will free up staff to spend more time with clients.
Unlike previous systems, Casebook makes it possible to communicate and collaborate with an extended team—a hallmark of Casey’s approach—including service providers, community-based organizations, and key contacts, such as teachers, counselors, nurses, and physicians.
“Another big limitation of current case management systems is that they are not family-centric, making it difficult for caseworkers to think about the family as a whole and make decisions grounded in family needs, strengths, and relationships,” says Feely. “Current systems may, for example, call a caseworker’s attention to an overdue administrative task, but not alert them to a possibly significant change in family circumstances.
“This lack of emphasis on the family makes it hard to paint a clear, long-term picture of family history, monitor progress toward permanence, track health and education outcomes, or understand which combinations of services and supports might work best.”
Some of Casebook’s key features designed to support caseworkers and improve outcomes include:
- Creating network connections to tap vital knowledge about youth, families, and their circles of support;
- Tracking the family’s involvement with other agencies;
- Using visual tools such as interactive timelines to make sense of what is happening with families as it happens;
- Making case decisions more transparent and inclusive, with an emphasis on team and family involvement;
- Maintaining service plans as living documents that reflect the combined insights of everyone involved in the child’s case;
- Telling the case story and providing a full clinical picture by blending narrative with structured case history; and
- Sharing best practice guidelines and related research to promote the most effective action steps.
In addition, while federal and state governments have invested over $2.8 billion in the existing information systems to date, estimates suggest that Casebook could cost substantially less to build. And because it is web-based it would be easier and cheaper to maintain and update.
Rolling Out Casebook
Case Commons, a subsidiary of the Foundation created to design and build Casebook, has been piloting Casebook with Casey Family Services, its direct services agency, since spring 2010 to ensure that it fits the needs and work styles of actual practitioners. In addition to Massachusetts, Casey Family Services divisions in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont already use Casebook. When Baltimore, Maine, and New Hampshire are on board by early 2011, the Casebook team will survey users and conduct focus groups to identify ways to improve the system.
Fitzgerald of the Massachusetts Division participated in Casebook planning meetings and was trained as one of four “power users,” meaning those who get additional training and serve as a resource in helping other staff use Casebook.
“It is much easier to figure out where you need to navigate to put in information, and it flows a lot better than the existing system,” says Fitzgerald. “I can see everything my staff is doing on a case, and if I’ve approved a document, they can see that.
“I look forward to the day when states are using it as well, so we can be on one system. That would be a beautiful thing.”
* not her real name