The Safety Gap

To protect the children they serve, child welfare caseworkers need high-tech connections between field and office.
February 1, 2008
Ellen Perlman
By Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.

New, improved child welfare databases that states have been working on for years may be a technological thing of beauty, but don't tell that to caseworkers in the field. Most of them have no way to access the streamlined information. They still must drive to their offices to transcribe client information into the system and lug manila folders and notebooks with them when they visit clients' homes.

In 1993, Congress enacted a law mandating Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information Systems. States had to fix their patchwork systems so databases would contain timely and consistent client information. Since then, states have been steadily improving their systems but most haven't gotten around to folding field-worker needs into the enterprise. That's true even though caseworkers are, says Tom Hay, of the Child Welfare League of America, "the last mile that connects a child to the database."

The messy paperwork operation not only is a burden for the workers but also can translate into danger for children. "Timeliness is incredibly important in investigative work," says Thomas Chapmond, former commissioner of Texas' Department of Family and Protective Services. After doing case reviews in the wake of a rash of high-profile deaths of children in 2003 and 2004, the department found that caseworkers weren't documenting their visits right away. They lacked the time and tools to do the job well. In many cases, services may have been provided but not noted in theofficial record. If it's not written down, Chapmond says,"it didn't happen."

In 2005, the Texas legislature gave the Department of Family and Protective Services an unprecedented boost in funding and staff positions. The department spent $16 million for some 3,500 tablet PCs. Now caseworkers can connect to their files throughout the day -- at a diner or from the parking lot of a shopping mall -- and get the information they need for their next home visit. They can look up department policies or file last-minute paperwork. The lightweight, clipboard-style computer allows them to write with a digital pen and forgo a mouse and a keyboard. Freed up from driving back and forth to an office whenever they need information, they can spend more time with the children and families they serve.

Following a pilot program with 90 child welfare workers, a survey showed that 90 percent of them were "very pleased" with the performance of the technology, although 15 percent had training or equipment issues. More than 75 percent reported an increase in timely documentation. And 63 percent reported better-quality documentation. Bottom line: Instead of two days, it now takes only two hours, on average, to remove a child from a dangerous home.

The Texas tablet PCs are new, improved versions of tablet technology. The early ones are not nearly as useful. Ten of 72 counties in Wisconsin have used tablet technology for upwards of three years. Unfortunately, they do not have wireless capability, which means caseworkers are unable to tap into information that resides on theoffice system when they're in the field. Butthe technology maintains anadvantage over stacks of noteBooks. Caseworkers can download case information and other reports at the office and can work on them in the field or type in notes from a visit and work on safety-assessment plans. The work done in the field can be uploaded from the tablets to the database quickly once a caseworker is back at the office. Still, the employees can get frustrated when they find they didn't download something they need. "Our system was really valuable up to a point," says Steve McDowell, technical manager of Wisconsin's automated child welfare system. Wisconsin is exploring wireless, although thestate faces challenges in rural areas where wireless access is sporadic.

The wireless connection is not just a convenience. It allows caseworkers to send photos that might be needed for quick decisions. For instance, instead of explaining the disarray and filth in a house, caseworkers can send a picture of the problem. They can then consult with a supervisor about an issue based on the living situation.

Caseworkers also can access electronic maps on their PCs to help them find clients' homes and plan direct routes from client to client. The wireless technology is particularly useful during emergencies. Upon learning about a crisis, caseworkers can download information, including criminal histories, as they rush off to where they're needed.

State-of-the-art technology isn't a luxury, Chapmond says. In the field, it can make a critical difference.

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist |