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2004 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 9, No. 4
July 2004

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 is usually a passive one: once data are collected, the people on the front lines tend to wait for outside experts to tell them what the data means, how they are doing relative to performance measures, and what they should do to improve. Traditionally, child welfare agencies are 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:

  • 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.

  • 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 stakeholders.

  • Agency Cohesion. Because self-evaluation underscores the contributions everyone in the agency makes toward the achievement of key performance outcomes, such as reducing the length of time children spend in foster care, it often promotes a sense of unity and working together as a team.

  • Timely, Targeted Interventions. Working with their data and outcomes enables agencies to identify gaps in their performance and develop interventions for closing those gaps. And, because they are less dependent upon others for data and assistance, agencies can do this in a more timely way.

For a glimpse how self-evaluating agencies use data to engage staff, see Using Data-Based Newsletters to Engage Staff, Others Around Child Welfare Outcomes.

NC’s “Experiences” Data
The N.C. Division of Social Services and its partners have been working to promote self-evaluation in North Carolina’s child welfare agencies for about 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 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 child welfare. Today, county DSS’s are most familiar with the longitudinal data that the Division delivers in the form of the periodic “experiences reports.” These reports provide counties with data that reflects their performance on certain child welfare indicators:

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

Experiences reports 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 reports can be found at <www.dhhs.state.nc.us/dss/childrensservices/stats/ctyexp.htm>.

Demonstration
But can the outcome data in experiences reports really tell social workers anything about practice?

Judy Wildfire, a professor at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Social Work, is convinced it can. To persuade us, Wildfire, who helps agencies build their capacity to work with longitudinal data, conducted an analysis of the longitudinal data file that was the basis for the most recent experiences report.

First, using data for the whole State, Wildfire selected information related to the goal of serving children in the least restrictive placement possible. Specifically, she examined the experiences of children who initially entered placement between July 1, 1998 and June 30, 2003.

The data (see fig. 1, below) tell us that during this time most children were placed in a family-like setting, usually a foster home or kin home. However, they also tell us that older children were much more likely to be placed in non-family-like settings. About 50% of teens went to this type of placement.

Curious, Wildfire looked at where these teens were placed (see fig. 2, below). The numbers (not shown) reveal that each year slightly more than 300 teens were placed in congregate care facilities. This represents less than 10% of all the children who initially entered placement during this period.

Your Turn
That is what the data tell us. But what do they mean?

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 experiences report data for your county with regard to initial placements. How do the experiences of teens in your county fit with the experiences of teens statewide? Do you place 50% of your teens in congregate care?

Once you have answered this question, your agency can decide whether the data have implications for practice. For example, if you find you do place 50% of teens in non-family-like settings, you must decide whether this is a good or bad thing. Perhaps all of these kids have needs that are best addressed by this type of placement. If so, your placement pattern may be appropriate. Then again, maybe teens are going to group care due to an inadequate number of foster homes for teens in your community. If so, you might consider a targeted foster parent recruitment campaign.

The point is, agencies must reach their own conclusions about what their data means and what to do about it.

Next Steps
Though we have only scratched the surface of self-evaluation, we hope this article shows that data really can inform practice in a meaningful way.

To learn more about self-evaluation and working with longitudinal data, consult Measuring Outcomes in Child Welfare, a teaching manual developed by members of a Family to Family evaluation team from the UNC–Chapel Hill School of Social Work. You can find it online at <www.unc.edu/~lynnu/campmanual.pdf>.

References for this and other articles in this issue