It’s so hard to believe that it was nearly six years ago that the CCWIS Final Rule was published, and with it, a lot of excitement about how technology could support practice in child welfare. The Comprehensive ChildWelfare Information System (CCWIS) was largely focused on data quality and integration, with minimal focus on specificity in functional requirements. Even the design requirements allowed for autonomy at the state level, to support varying organizational structures and community collaboration.
A lot has happened since 2016. Now, more than ever, the original intent of CCWIS holds true. In the early presentations from the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), they highlighted a number of benefits including:
- Support state or tribal child welfare policies and practices – it should be built to meet agency, not federal needs
- Provide child welfare staff with information to make informed decisions and take action
- Encourage program innovation
- Support collaboration with other human service, health and education programs/systems
- Facilitate communication with courts
- Promote continuous quality improvement
- Use new technology to support the child welfare team
With CCWIS, much of the hype has been around the use of CustomerRelationship Management (CRM) platforms. Decisions of which platform to choose often come from the IT department, looking to standardize across an enterprise.This is understandable, but it is what you do with this platform that matters most. No CRM alone will meet all of the needs of a child welfare agency if configured in the same monolithic way that the legacy systems were designed.
The system of care for child welfare is extensive, going beyond the state agency to counties, private providers and community partners, and of course families and older youth. There are also other state agencies and programs with whom collaboration is essential to improving outcomes for children and families. Thus, consideration of a state system, without consideration of the needs of the broader system of care will not yield the programmatic benefits that are needed to make a difference.
Back to the Drawing Board
If we focus back on those original stated benefits, how might we imagine a CCWIS that leverages the modern capabilities of technology to better enable child welfare programs and operations. How might those technology solutions enhance engagement with children and families, if we discard the textbook approach to the functions and process flows? Most importantly, how can we enhance the experience of the families and the caseworkers? Here are a few tips:
- Identify the low hanging fruit: Where can you automate, quickly, while considering the policy and practice changes to address the bigger systemic issues? One of the easiest ways is through forms automation. Many jurisdictions are still using paper forms, Microsoft Word, and other manual and error prone processes. Modern solutions can solve this problem quickly and integrate with legacy systems.
- Begin with the end in mind: The workforce is in crisis with turnover and unprecedented vacancies. We’ve heard from them for years that they are inundated with administrivia. Are there areas that can be automated to decrease administrative burden on caseworkers (e.g. foster care receipts uploaded by the family, rather than sent to the caseworker)? Even what seems like a small automation use case can return big benefits that can contribute to worker retention.
- Don’t forget the humans: You cannot design a human-centered solution if you haven’t spoken to the humans who you are designing for. Talk to the caseworkers, talk to the families and the older youth. What can make the experience better? During the pandemic, many jurisdictions realized improvements with older youth attending appointments, because they could do it remotely. They liked being able to engage at their convenience, on demand (in some cases), and leveraging technology for communications.
A few other items of note regarding leveraging the promise ofCCWIS:
1. Break up the RFP: Agencies should consider multiple procurements to get the right vendors delivering the best solutions.I’m not talking about DDI and IV&V. There are many point solutions on the market that are already proven. Many of these have been built by organizations who spent years on research and design, leveraged lived experience, and incorporated extensive human-centric design. Don’t reinvent the wheel by custom developing something that won’t be as valuable as what is already available to you for a fraction of the cost. If the procurement process is too long or burdensome, consider other procurement vehicles (NASPO, Master Service Agreements, etc.) where you can procure these solutions without compromising procurement integrity.
2. Focus on Incremental Value: Given the challenges of decommissioning legacy systems, it may realistically take you three or more years to fully replace the core legacy system. Innovation can(and should) occur outside of the core system. While you are working on building out the new platform, you can concurrently implement innovation solutions. These products can be stood up quickly (like mobile or analytics solutions)and deliver value now. Agencies in crisis, need solutions now.
3. Leverage the Data You Have: Child Welfare agencies have a gold mine in data. The most challenging part is sifting through it to get what you need, where you need it. Modern tools can do that for you, quickly. Bringing the most important data to inform (in some cases) life saving decisions. The ACF recently published Technical Bulletin #8, with modifications to guidance regarding bi-directional exchanges. This is a game changer for privatized and county-administered states, in particular. By allowing counties and providers to have access to their data, the opportunity for innovation is extended. On the ground providers can innovate and deliver better quality services at the local level where families need it most.
A Path Forward with Benefits Now
There are many solutions on the market that are purpose built for child welfare and can be implemented on antiquated legacy systems or mainframes. These solutions will integrate with the modern platforms when those implementations occur. These are not wasted efforts or investments. Innovations are not nice to have. They are critical to solving the urgent problems that child welfare agencies are facing today.
Integration with new products and legacy systems, combined with data exchanges are the best way to support the complex network of stakeholders in child welfare. By continuing to build large, monolithic systems the user community will create work arounds and duplicative work that exacerbates the capacity and quality problems. States should leverage modern technology to support the programs, in the way that CCWIS was intended. The bottom line is that child welfare agencies cannot afford to wait three to five years to get a new system. The risk is simply too high. The good news is you don’t have to wait.