2009 Jordan Institute
14, No. 2
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.
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:
NC’s Experiences 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:
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
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
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:
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.”