Commentary: Three ways digital tools could reshape the work of child welfare caseworkers

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Ask child welfare caseworkers about their jobs, and they will tell you about their commitment, and their frustrations too. One state agency caseworker explains her struggle. “There’s so much more that I want to do for the kids. Some days, though, I feel like I’m doing everything but spending time helping them.”

Digital technologies won’t address all those frustrations. But there’s a growing case for how they can help caseworkers do more for the kids they work with — and help states do more to support and retain the caseworkers they have.

Reaching a turning point

Child welfare caseworkers do vital work for our communities, and for our collective future. Yet the profession is at a crossroads. National turnover rates are rising amid complex challenges — from exploding caseload volumes to burdensome administrative responsibilities — with some state turnover rates as high as 25 to 35 percent.

Turnover is costly all around. Agencies essentially lose time and money spent on recruitment and training. Remaining caseworkers, who are already stretched thin, must fill the gaps when people leave. Children and families lose out too because turnover adversely affects outcomes. So how can human services agencies bring caseworkers back to kids?

Getting back to work for kids

Agencies can start by re-imagining caseworkers’ day-to-day responsibilities. Think of it as developing a new human services job description — one that frees child welfare caseworkers to do the job that they were meant to do.

This reinvention does not have to be an “ivory tower” exercise. By supporting changes in how caseworkers work in three important areas, agencies can help empower caseworkers to rediscover what inspired them to pursue the profession in the first place.

1. Mobile worker, not office worker

Child welfare caseworkers go where families are. They are most effective when they are conducting home visits, attending court or working with providers, not tethered to their desks. After all, casework was mobile long before mobile technologies were a reality.

Not surprisingly, then, mobile tools are ideal for this human services workforce. Smartphones and tablets offer deep and immediate information access, interactivity, and on-the-go, real-time reporting capabilities. All this enables caseworkers to spend more time in the field, and makes that time more productive than ever.

What might surprise human services agencies exploring mobile workforce tools is that to truly enable caseworkers with mobility, agencies must think beyond the device. The implementation mindset cannot be about technology for technology’s sake. Instead, agencies must embrace mobility with intention and vision, developing policies and strategies that address the big picture of a distinctly different way of working that is as dynamic as emerging mobile technologies themselves.

The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, known as DCF, discovered this firsthand. After swiftly deploying iPads to field staff, DCF assessed current mobile capabilities and the initial roll out. DCF used these insights to develop an actionable blueprint and roadmap designed to maximize the possibilities of a mobile-enabled workforce. While DCF’s journey continues, an agencywide survey showed that 74 percent of the workforce is comfortable with the mobile devices — 66 percent feel more efficient using them.

2. Data analysis, not just data entry

The right data insight at the right time can make a difference in a child’s life. That’s why it is critical for agencies to rebalance how caseworkers engage with data, especially in the digital age where data is everywhere.

Today’s caseworkers spend far too much time inputting data when they could be acting on it. Ironically, as essential as data insight is, data-entry-fatigued caseworkers sometimes struggle to see its unique value. Agencies must help staff believe in data again by shifting the focus from inputs to outcomes, and from quantity to quality.

By combining the use of digital tools and predictive analytics techniques, agencies can dramatically change things for caseworkers. With real-time data insight at their fingertips via mobile devices, caseworkers can proactively connect the dots for kids.

Reminders and alerts and self-service tools that allow caseworkers to customize data views on the fly could transform human services case management. There also needs to be a new emphasis on here-and-now-data about individual children, not just longitudinal data about entire demographic groups.

Some agencies are putting useful data into caseworkers’ and supervisors’ hands. As part of a broad transformation effort, one state human services department created a tool that provides a view of key child abuse prevention measures that allows users to drill into the real-time data, identify specific cases and take action. The tool helped reduce overdue investigations from up to 800 per month to fewer than 50 per month.

3. Interconnected, not isolationist

The old adage that it takes a village to raise a child has special resonance for caseworkers. They cannot be successful alone. They depend on many stakeholders — other human services organizations, providers and the families themselves — to get a full view of a child’s needs.

Although children do not live in silos, unfortunately, the safety network designed to protect them too often does. A convergence of technology systems, processes and governance is needed to improve collaboration and data sharing — along with cultural change too.

The lack of integration of stakeholder technology systems is a big barrier to caseworker effectiveness. For example, caseworkers are often mandated to track educational performance data for children once they are removed from their homes. But if child protective services systems were integrated with the public school technology backbone, this would happen automatically.

Consider this too: Caseworkers do reports on provider activities, but with self-service portals, providers could do it themselves. Imagine too if similar, easy-to-use technology systems provided a safe and easy way for digital native kids to reach out to their caseworkers.

Discussion around these and other bold ideas, in the spirit of creative problem solving, is just what the child welfare community needs to support new forms of collaboration to help caseworkers be more effective.

Doing the best job for kids

The perfect world scenario for every child welfare agency is to become so successful delivering human services outcomes that it puts itself out of business. What a wonderful vision of delivering public service for the future.

But the hard truth is that there will always be kids in need. Child welfare caseworkers are their lifeline. Empowering these dedicated human services professionals to help children means rewriting their job description so that nothing gets in the way of their passion and purpose.

Sean Toole is managing director at Accenture. Contact him at sean.d.toole@accenture.com.

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Commentary, Data Analytics, Digital Services, Massachusetts, Mobility, Private Sector, State & Local News, States, Tech News
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