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 States seeking federal support have been required to build data systems in inflexible and outdated ways, making it difficult to procure systems that are user-friendly and help child welfare staff assemble and analyze multiple data sources about a child.

“Not only do outdated technology solutions stifle effectiveness, they also miss one of the single greatest policy advances in the 21st century — the ability to collect, aggregate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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