How cross-agency data sharing will improve outcomes for vulnerable children
Lack of funding is not the biggest problem in child welfare. The most important problem is that we still don’t know how to reliably help kids! Right now, we aren’t able to prevent child abuse and neglect fatality, recurrence of abuse and neglect, or even prevent a child from being further victimized while in foster or kinship care. No one can say if expensive social resources are being allocated to the people who need them most, or if the services provided are effective in improving child outcomes. To find solutions for these fundamental problems, my collaborators and I have developed a framework for innovation to improve child welfare, and it begins with predicting where child maltreatment will occur in the future with Risk Terrain Modeling (Rutgers).
Risk Terrain Modeling was originally developed to evaluate the spatial dynamics of crime. We used the software to evaluate the physical environment around victims of child maltreatment to identify a consistent pattern of risk, or risk-clustering, where children are especially vulnerable to future maltreatment. In the City of Fort Worth, not surprisingly, we found child abuse and neglect is most likely to occur in small geographic areas, about the size of a football field, where there have been multiple arrests for domestic violence, aggravated assault, and sexual assault. There are lots of runaways there, too. We don’t know who the victim or perpetrator will be, but we can tell you where vulnerable children and families are located. This is really important for vulnerable babies and toddlers because, usually, no one notices they are in trouble until after they are hurt or killed. (See: Risk Terrain Modeling Predicts Child Maltreatment)
Now that we know where children are at risk, we can get really specific about resource allocation, capacity needs for vital services, and fill gaps in the safety net. One super practical example of a solution is figuring out if mothers in risk-cluster areas can easily access childcare so they don’t have to leave their new baby with a boyfriend when they go to work. We may not be able to stop a boyfriend from beating a baby to death, but we can organize a better childcare solution.
How will this framework help us learn what really helps children? Well, if we align effective resources and services in risk-cluster areas, we should see a reduction in child maltreatment and contributory risk factors, right? Objective measures of improvement include a reduction in events like violent crime, domestic violence, teen pregnancy, drug arrests, mental health crisis, school bullying, neglect-related child injuries, and ultimately child maltreatment. Some combination of services, support, infrastructure and economic development will be preventive, we just have to find the special sauce.
This is where cross-agency data sharing becomes mission-critical. All of the outcome measures necessary to figure out how to prevent child maltreatment are already being collected, just not by one agency, and agencies don’t share data with each other. That’s why every government form asks the same questions, and the inefficiency hurts kids. Consider the hundreds of children who were designated “priority 1” by child protective services in Texas but were never seen by a caseworker. Much of the information obtained by caseworkers during that first crucial visit is already available across state agency data systems, but instead of looking to the existing data to partially address the issue, we wait to evaluate a child’s risk until a caseworker is available to go ask the same questions, again.
The importance of child maltreatment prevention is something we can all agree on. It is possible to balance efficiency, accountability, and economic responsibility with the provision of quality social services for children and families. Data sharing is the key to learning what works for kids.