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2009 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 14, No. 2
May 2009

A Child Welfare Agency Reviews Its Data and Engages New Partners

North Carolina’s Pitt County Department of Social Services is serious about using data. Program Manager Margaret Dixon and Social Work Supervisor Mildred M. Daniels have led an effort over the last several months to assess the agency’s foster parent recruitment and retention program and to engage community partners in achieving desired outcomes.

A Need to Understand
Despite a difficult budget climate and everyday demands, Dixon feels strongly about stepping back long enough to understand the big picture.

“No time is going to be the best time, that’s how I look at it,” she says. “I really want to understand our numbers and what they tell us. I want to know the narrative for our agency.”

Dixon realizes that understanding, sharing, and monitoring the agency’s data plays a key role in making sustainable improvements. “We have to have a sense of where we are, and we have to keep the community on board. If we don’t ever talk to our partners about how they can be involved, how can we make changes?”

Engaging the Community
Pitt County DSS invited a broad array of potential partners with an interest in the safety, well-being, and permanence of children to a community meeting in February 2009.

A high turnout proved to Dixon’s team that they do not have to work in isolation. Over 20 people came to learn how they can help with foster parent recruitment and retention. Participants included leadership from local law enforcement, juvenile justice, the faith community, mental health, the schools, and others. DSS also invited a young woman in foster care and four foster parents to share their stories with the community leaders.

Sharing Data
Pitt County staff are now planning an even larger, day-long community event that will take place in April. At this event they will share data they are proud of, such as a decrease in children brought into foster care. (They believe this decrease is due in large part to the front-loading of services and family-centered approach of MRS.)

Pitt County DSS will also share data that shows where they need the community’s help. Community participants will work in small groups to develop specific, concrete strategies to achieve their desired outcomes. DSS will then invite a small group of community partners to continue working with their agency on carrying out the recommended strategies and sharing results with the larger community.

Much of the data the Pitt County team is studying comes from North Carolina’s Child Welfare website ( Faculty from the UNC-CH School of Social Work, which maintains the website, are providing technical assistance to Pitt County to help it navigate and understand all of the data available.

Personal Stories
Understanding child welfare practice in Pitt County requires personal stories as well as numbers. To gather this essential data, DSS staff are reaching out to ask foster parents and youth in care to share their stories.

Rather than devising a complicated system for this, Pitt County staff are simply asking for more specific feedback from families and youth as they do their routine visits and case management.

This type of qualitative data is essential. Agency and community partners have to understand the human side of what works well in an agency, and where gaps exist.

Pitt County DSS feels so strongly about sharing the human side of their work that they will feature a panel of youth in care at their community event. “Nothing can take the place of hearing directly from young people,” Dixon says. “They can say things with so much more power than we ever can.”

Data alone can’t engage people’s attention or commitment to work together differently, even when the facts demonstrate that we are not as successful as we could be. The story behind the facts—the families and young people represented in the facts—must be in the room and at the table for their truths to come through. The following Jewish Teaching Story from Simmons (2001) captures this truth.

Truth and Story

Truth, naked and cold, had been turned away from every door in the village. Her nakedness frightened people.

When Parable found her, she was huddled in a corner, shivering and hungry. There, she dressed Truth in Story, warmed her, and sent her out again. Clothed in Story, Truth knocked again at the villagers’ door and was readily welcomed into the people’s homes. They invited her to eat at their table and to warm herself by the fire.

Looking Ahead
Dixon hopes these efforts will lead to a long-term community partnership. “I still feel strongly that we’ll end up with an ongoing Advisory Committee that will monitor how we’re doing and keep us accountable,” she says.

As Dixon and her team create an agency culture that actively uses data, they gain new opportunities for sharing responsibility with their community—and improving outcomes.

References for this and other articles in this issue