Three Steps to Modernizing Child Welfare Systems

Three Steps to Modernizing Child Welfare Systems

Perhaps no aspect of health and human services (HHS) is of greater importance than Child Welfare. Every 48 seconds, a child is abused. Children who are vulnerable or abused have varying needs depending on their situation. When Child Protective Services (CPS) assess and remove a child from a dangerous home, a case is started in the Child Welfare system. That case documents the child as they are moved in and out of different living environments—whether foster care, a group home, or another family member’s home. During the most recent reporting period, there were over 407,000 children in foster care in the U.S. The average age of those kids is just 8 years old.

To keep children safe, HHS agencies need the right IT infrastructure in place. Unfortunately, most are dealing with decades-old systems that aren’t serving workers or children well. This problem was exasperated by the pandemic, which caused many abused children to be stuck in dangerous environments longer. At the same time, COVID immediately changed the way HHS agencies did business, demanding improved technologies and contactless service.

While agencies are realizing their systems need to be modernized, many are unsure of priorities and where to begin. But modernizing Child Welfare systems is perhaps the most important government undertaking there is. Here are three steps agencies should consider following as they rework their technology to better serve vulnerable children.

1. Start with data.

Most Child Welfare systems are built on top of massive relational databases that don’t fit modern workflows. In such databases, it’s difficult to add an additional field, so workers often put data in fields where they don’t belong. If there’s turnover, new workers don’t know what those workaround fields mean. These databases are also filled with duplicate data and different spellings. The first step to modernizing child welfare systems is to clean and de-duplicate this data and move it from the legacy database environment into the cloud. This is the perhaps the most important component of all legacy system modernization.

When moving data into the cloud, agencies need to be strategic about how much they want to keep. Five to seven years of data is likely sufficient; the rest can go into an archive database for use in the event of research needs, legal actions, and preserving case history. Ideally, the data structure set up during this step can be used for all social services systems including SNAP, TANF, and child support. Let’s say a grandmother is the kinship caregiver of her three grandchildren. On behalf of her grandchildren, she can apply for TANF, SNAP, and energy assistance. Only by getting data out of legacy systems, cleansed, and into the cloud can the case managers have a full view of her situation.

2. Build the system around your goals.

Once the data is cleansed and understood, agencies can make better decisions about what system they need. In the past, HHS agencies were often just handed new systems that were focused largely on numbers, such as how many children were entered in foster care in a particular county. A modernized system needs to be built around how the agency does its job and what its main goals are – designed around defined outcomes. Let’s say your agency wants to keep more children within family. That goal should inform how you build certain aspects of the system and what data elements you choose to collect

3. Support workers in the field.

Modernization is particularly important for Child Welfare workers, as their jobs require being out in the field. On any given day, a case manager must check on numerous at-risk children. After a welfare check, they need to be able to efficiently update case information. Legacy systems lack such flexibility. While workers generally have laptops to serve them on-the-go, those laptops often don’t connect back to the main system well, resulting in missing information and further complicating the central database.

As HHS agencies build a new system, case managers need to be included in the design. To best support their workloads, everything should be centralized. But beyond that, it’s important to really listen to the needs of case managers so they are willing to adapt to a new system. The last thing an agency wants is to spend time designing a new system that case managers don’t want to learn or use. Case managers are frontline workers in the world of Child Welfare, so their needs reflect those of vulnerable children.