“We are living in an unprecedented time” may be the most understated phrase ever uttered. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are touching every aspect of our lives. However, for vulnerable children and families, the impact can have dangerous consequences. Child protection depends on children being seen – at school, at the doctor’s office, in the community, and for those that are involved as a client of a child welfare agency, by their assigned case worker, guardian ad litem, and/or CASA volunteer.
The coronavirus has disrupted this system. With so many communities under stay-at-home orders, we don’t know what we can’t see, and so we are increasingly concerned about the best way to protect at-risk children.
A previous CompTIA blog focused on mobilizing the eyes of the community to help protect vulnerable children.
Child welfare agencies face a twofold dilemma. Not only has the visibility of at-risk children been reduced, children in foster care and those at home no longer have a social worker seeing them in-person on a regular basis. This predicament requires increased partnerships with other public agencies and the community at-large to find new ways to share and use existing data to glean important insights about children and families.
Child welfare agencies can leverage and analyze existing data sources to identify and focus outreach on children most at risk. Due to the number of federal reporting requirements, most child welfare agencies are rich in data that can be mined to identify vulnerable children in their communities and detect existing clients who may need additional support due to the increased stress of the pandemic and financial crisis.
Agencies don’t necessarily need to do something new and extraordinary. Many may be able to use what is already available to them. We offer these thoughts with a note of caution. Agencies should be aware that racial bias exists in decision-making and that is reflected in the data. Proceeding with a lens toward equity and an awareness of the disproportionately that is present in child welfare will help guard against unintended consequences. With that in mind, here are a couple of suggestions:
- Use hotline referral information in conjunction with other data sources to identify communities with the greatest financial and environmental stress. While child welfare agencies cannot respond to unreported cases of child maltreatment, there are other data sources that can shed light on communities experiencing family and environmental factors correlated with child maltreatment.
For example, data that reveal where unemployment claims are spiking; data from 911, 211, or 311 calls, juvenile justice systems, and non-profit agency partners can also provide meaningful and significant insights. Historical vs. current data may show a shift in the number of hotline calls and help us pinpoint where and what types of partnerships are most critical to heighten support and prevention efforts. Additionally, GIS software can serve as a useful tool to quickly identify the communities where these partnerships are needed.
- Analysis of risk assessments and/or functional assessments to identify families and children at increased risk. Most agencies use tools to assess child safety, caretaker strengths and needs, and child functioning. Several jurisdictions have built or are examining the use of predictive risk models to improve decision support. These tools can help child welfare agencies identify children and families that need attention during this time and prioritize these cases for more frequent contact.
This data can also help determine where in-person visits might be necessary based on risk and need. In some situations, video conferencing solutions may be viable substitutes for in-person visits with children and families. Careful consideration must be taken about what situations necessitate in-person contact. An analysis of existing risk, functional and caretaker capacity is critical for this type of determination. Additionally, and perhaps less apparent, this type of analysis will help agencies quantify the need for personal protective equipment (PPE) by having an idea about the number of in-person visits that must be made.
Child welfare agencies need current and reliable information about children in their care. It is critical that agencies require timely documentation and ensure that visits and contacts are recorded in data systems. Agencies may need to mobilize existing reporting structures on a more frequent basis in order to have as close to real-time data as possible to closely monitor the children in their care. It also may be a good time to advance data sharing agreements with key partners.
During this time of global uncertainty, child welfare agencies have an opportunity to use their rich sources of data to help ensure vulnerable children are kept safe. Now is the time to think creatively on how to do that. If you are working on an innovative way to use existing data to support the work of child welfare during COVID-19, and would be interested in having this work highlighted in a future blog post, please share with us at email@example.com.