Regulations, Procurement Practices Have Hampered Innovation in Child Welfare Technology

Posted December 7, 2015, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

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This is the sec­ond in a four-part series about Case­book, a state-of-the-art tool to help child wel­fare work­ers track and improve results for chil­dren in their care. In this install­ment, we look at the issues Case­book was designed to address and the obsta­cles it has faced.

Part 2: The Problem

Many states relied on paper records to man­age their child wel­fare case­loads and col­lect fed­er­al­ly required data until 1993, when Con­gress enact­ed a law pro­vid­ing fund­ing for com­put­er­ized infor­ma­tion sys­tems. This ini­tia­tive, now called the Statewide and Trib­al Auto­mat­ed Child Wel­fare Infor­ma­tion Sys­tems (S/TACWIS), gave states an incen­tive to mod­ern­ize and stan­dard­ize data col­lec­tion. But these reg­u­la­tions have not kept pace with evolv­ing tech­nol­o­gy. States seek­ing fed­er­al sup­port have been required to build data sys­tems in inflex­i­ble and out­dat­ed ways, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to pro­cure sys­tems that are user-friend­ly and help child wel­fare staff assem­ble and ana­lyze mul­ti­ple data sources about a child.

Not only do out­dat­ed tech­nol­o­gy solu­tions sti­fle effec­tive­ness, they also miss one of the sin­gle great­est pol­i­cy advances in the 21st cen­tu­ry — the abil­i­ty to col­lect, aggre­gate and ana­lyze large vol­umes of data in real time,” says Tere­sa Markowitz, vice pres­i­dent of Casey’s Cen­ter for Sys­tems Innovation.

Blair Levin, com­mu­ni­ca­tions and soci­ety fel­low with the Aspen Insti­tute, for­mer exec­u­tive direc­tor of the broad­band ini­tia­tive at the Fed­er­al Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion and a Case Com­mons board mem­ber, says that when cas­work­ers don’t have nec­es­sary infor­ma­tion, it’s a lost oppor­tu­ni­ty to help a child.” More­over, notes Andrea Hollen, direc­tor of data dri­ven prac­tice for Case Com­mons, for an increas­ing­ly younger and more tech-savvy work­force, to get to a child wel­fare agency and have to use cum­ber­some lega­cy tech­nol­o­gy is not morale-boosting.”

The fed­er­al Admin­is­tra­tion for Chil­dren and Fam­i­lies (ACF) has tak­en some steps to address these con­cerns. In 2013, it approved a waiv­er process that for the first time eased restric­tions on the abil­i­ty of states to use com­mer­cial off-the-shelf (COTS) and Soft­ware as a Ser­vice (SaaS), a dis­tri­b­u­tion mod­el in which appli­ca­tions are host­ed by a ser­vice provider and made avail­able by sub­scrip­tion over a net­work. Indi­ana was award­ed one of these waivers in con­nec­tion with its use of Case­book in 2014.

In August 2015, ACF also pro­posed new reg­u­la­tions to replace S/TACWIS that would pro­vide greater flex­i­bil­i­ty and encour­age states and tribes to build child wel­fare data sys­tems that bet­ter fit their needs. The pro­posed new Com­pre­hen­sive Child Wel­fare Infor­ma­tion Sys­tem would pro­mote more time­ly, com­plete, accu­rate and com­pa­ra­ble data across agen­cies while help­ing to keep costs down.

But obsta­cles to the wide­spread adop­tion of more mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy in child wel­fare still abound. Many states have long­stand­ing rela­tion­ships with main­stream tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies that work with the tra­di­tion­al or lega­cy” sys­tems that offi­cials felt they need­ed to com­ply with S/TACWIS. Child wel­fare lead­ers have been enthu­si­as­tic about the more flex­i­ble and mod­u­lar approach offered by Case­book. But, as Hollen not­ed, tech­nol­o­gy pro­cure­ment prac­tices tend to be very drawn out and are not designed to encour­age the adop­tion of more mod­ern tech­nolo­gies.” And with lim­it­ed funds to serve so many fam­i­lies with com­plex needs, mak­ing a new invest­ment when so much has been sunk into exist­ing sys­tems can be daunting.

Peo­ple think the eas­i­est, safest approach is just to do is what every­one else is doing, because the con­se­quences of fail­ure are tremen­dous,” says Judge James W. Payne, for­mer direc­tor of child ser­vices in Indi­ana and now a con­sul­tant with the Pub­lic Con­sult­ing Group. Lead­ers want some degree of assur­ance that they won’t be step­ping into a quagmire.”

But the work unfold­ing in Indi­ana, the first state to imple­ment Case­book, is demon­strat­ing that these obsta­cles can be over­come, free­ing up work­ers to spend more time serv­ing fam­i­lies and cost­ing less for com­pa­ra­ble com­po­nents than exist­ing sys­tems that are not meet­ing states’ needs.

Next: Indi­ana Leads the Way

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