Gold Nuggets: Communicating the Value of Data in Child Advocacy

Today Cindy’s alarm went off at 5am, and it was still dark outside her window.  She doesn’t work until 9:00 am but she had to go to a home visit on the other side of the city.  Exhausted from being up late on the phone with one of her clients the night before, she arrived at her home visit with no one responding to the doorbell.  After about half an hour she was ready to give up, and the caregiver opened the door rubbing her eyes.  The caregiver expected Cindy at 7:00 pm, not 7:00 am—miscommunication strikes again.  However, still able to conduct the visit, Cindy made it to work right at 9:00 am.  She hurried over her notes and rushed to court.  By the time she returned to her desk at work, it was well past lunch.  After all of her interactions with clients today, she knew she should still have to put the information into her organization’s database used to track a child’s progress through child advocacy and legal representation.  Cindy has to input information on education, health, behavioral health, placement, and activities that pertain to the client (i.e. phone calls, home visits, hearings, letters, meetings, etc.). The process is time consuming and Cindy hates it.  The database is never working and always changing and the IT people take forever to answer her emails.  So, what comes from the information? Cindy isn’t sure; she still lugs around paper case files that are so large she can use them as gym weights.  Instead of entering her data, she eats lunch and rushes off to the rest of her day as a social worker.

The tiny pieces of information Cindy observes at a home visit, on a phone call, or during a hearing, needs to be recorded into a system.  Amongst the larger picture of information, these little pieces seem like nothing more than clods of dirt in a gold mine.  When the big pieces are shining right in your face it’s hard to care for the little things that are hidden and scattered, but those little pieces can often hold gems that are far more valuable.  Each tiny piece of information and simple observation (e.g. Timmy looked as though he was losing weight, Josie had a scrape on her nose, Sarah missed her group therapy session again) all pertain to the bigger picture.  Timmy looking thin could be explained by the illness he has listed on the health page in the database, or it could tell signs of neglect much before any other signs become apparent.  These tiny bits of information aren’t immediately noticed as valuable, and when the direct benefits of data entry on these children aren’t clear, this becomes the real hurdle.

Social workers and attorneys work very hard to do what is best for their client.  They start work early, leave work late, work on weekends, and make themselves available whenever and wherever they are needed.  The work they do is invaluable.  There aren’t enough hours in the day to ask that, on top of their normal day-to-day work, they now have to spend two hours or more entering data on their clients—on every minute observation they can remember.  The information will never be input if an advantage cannot be seen directly.

This is my role.  During my year as a Stoneleigh Emerging Leader Fellow,  I have been traversing the world between information technology and child welfare and  have run into this problem all too frequently.  Implementing my project, Strengthening Child Advocacy through Data Driven Solutions, I have spent months working to improve the functionality and use of the Support Center for Child Advocates’ child outcomes database so that social workers and attorneys can better represent the interests of their child clients in court.  The biggest hurdle I’ve been faced with is to show the value of the system or at least to justify the time the Support Center requires of staff to commit to entering data on the child.  However, now with updates to the system, detailed reports can be printed at the press of a button.  A social worker can see an overview of a client’s case, why the case opened, who is connected to the client, what school they attend, and their medications.  With these improvements, during court coverage, a social worker or attorney can be confident that the client is wholly represented.  The footprint of a child’s journey through the system is traced so that if they should need future representation, the information needed to secure the safety, permanency and well-being of the child is readily available. 

While there are still some technological challenges, social workers and attorneys can now see the benefits of the information that the database can produce for them, making their advocacy in court better informed.  They also know that missing information, even if it’s only small pieces of data, leads to failure – failure of the data system, the data collection, and more importantly, failure of the child.

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