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2009 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 14, No. 2
May 2009

Using Data to Enhance Child Welfare Practice

Everyone who works in child welfare in North Carolina knows that there are people in Raleigh and Washington, D.C. who are paid to evaluate the effectiveness of our child welfare system and make decisions about policy and funding. We know these professionals base their evaluations and decisions on data, which Webster’s defines as “information, especially information organized for analysis or used as the basis for decision-making.”

Most child welfare workers also know that they themselves are the source of much of this data, and that they add to it every time they enter information such as a child’s name, age, or grade in school on forms like the NCDSS’s 5104, “Report to the Central Registry/CPS Application.”

Though child welfare workers and their agencies put a lot of effort into collecting, entering, and passing on information, their role relative to data and evaluation has traditionally been a passive one: once data are collected, the people on the front lines have tended to wait for outside experts to tell them what the data means, how they are doing on performance measures, and what they should do to improve. Historically, child welfare agencies have been data generators, not data consumers.

Self-Evaluation
In the eyes of some administrators and evaluation experts, this represents a missed opportunity. They argue that rather than relying solely on outside evaluators, child welfare agencies should engage in self-evaluation.

When an agency practices self-evaluation, it develops the capacity to use the information it has collected about itself and its community to enhance its work with families. The advantages of this approach include improvements in:

  • Timely, Targeted Interventions. Working with their data and outcomes enables agencies to identify gaps in their performance and develop specific interventions for closing those gaps. And, because they are less dependent on others for data and assistance, agencies can do this in a more timely way.
  • Agency Cohesion. Self-evaluation can promote a sense of unity and purpose as every employee understands what the agency is working towards, how it will be measured, and how they play a part. Whether processing paperwork, responding to phone calls, or collaborating with colleagues, workers can connect their day-to-day duties with achieving key outcome measures, such as placement stability.
  • External Communication. Agencies that are confident they understand their strengths and weaknesses—and have the data to back up their claims—can deal more effectively with the media, DSS boards, county commissioners, and other community stakeholders.
  • Documentation. When they feel ownership of outcomes, staff see how the data they collect affects the agency’s performance. In turn, they may take greater care to ensure documentation and data entry are accurate and comprehensive.

NC’s Experiences Data
The NC Division of Social Services and its partners have been working to promote self-evaluation in North Carolina’s child welfare agencies for more than ten years. When Families for Kids came to the state in the early 1990’s, the counties and the Division began to see the importance of ensuring that agencies had access to data, especially longitudinal data.

Longitudinal data allows practitioners, evaluators, and administrators to look at complete and accurate information about the experiences of all children in the child welfare system. Today, county DSS agencies are most familiar with the longitudinal data that the Division makes available on the Internet. This provides counties with information that reflects their performance on a wide variety of child welfare indicators:

  • Pattern of initial placements
  • Length of time in custody
  • Experiences of children placed in non-family settings
  • Placement stability
  • Re-entry into DSS custody

Experiences data enable counties to compare their performance on these indicators over time to the state as a whole, to counties of similar size, and to their own past performance. County-specific and statewide experiences data can be found at <http://ssw.unc.edu/cw>.

Linking Data and Practice
Outcome data can tell us really useful things about child welfare practice, as the following illustrates.

In many places, African American children are present in foster care at higher rates than they are in the general population. This is called racial disproportionality. One reason for disproportionality is that, in general, African American children spend more time in foster care than White children (Goerge, Wulczyn, & Harden, 1994; Wulczyn, 2004).

But this isn’t true everywhere. For example, in the last decade or so one particular large (level III) North Carolina county significantly reduced the median number of days African American children spent in foster care, from 424 days in State Fiscal Year (SFY) 1997-98 to 366 days in SFY 2005-06. For the whole state during the same period, the median number of days African American children spent in foster care actually increased, going from 434 days in SFY 1997-98 to 468 days in SFY 2005-06 (Duncan et al., 2009).

Moving from Information, to Understanding, to Action
This is the kind of thing data can tell us—that a percentage, or number, or rate went up or down. What data can’t tell us is what this change means and what to do in response.

In self-evaluating agencies, this is where supervisors and frontline staff come in. They know where policy and practice meet. They see with their own eyes when interventions work.

So we invite you and your agency to look at the data for your county and consider what it tells you about your practice. The key is to review the data as a team and then think about the story behind the numbers.

For example, with regard to the experiences of minority children, questions you might ask about your agency include:

  • How do the outcomes we achieve for minority children compare to those we achieve for White children?
  • How do our outcomes compare to the state and to other counties of our size?
  • What gaps might exist in our agency or community that prevent us from achieving better outcomes for minority children?
  • Where would we like to be on these outcomes in one year?

To find data about your county’s performance, go to North Carolina’s Child Welfare website (http://ssw.unc.edu/cw), select your county, then select “Race.”

References for this and other articles in this issue