GIS and Child Welfare: A Map Is Worth More Than a Thousand Words

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Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are well utilized in politics, city planning, environmental science, landscape architecture, business and public health. Increasingly, GIS is being utilized to better assess, understand and respond to various social challenges such as food deserts, housing instability and other social needs.

In 2013, Philadelphia began implementing the Improving Outcomes for Children (IOC) project. The project privatized foster care in the city by creating a community-based network of child welfare agencies with distinct roles for the Department of Human Services (DHS) and the private providers.

Currently, DHS uses GIS within its performance management and accountability division. Daniel Knapp, a research and information analyst within the division, uses it in his job daily. For example, now that DHS handles all investigations for Philadelphia, hot spot analyses are crucial in mapping their allocation. In these analyses, DHS is able to assign more or fewer workers to various regions to ensure staff is adequately covering areas with higher reporting rates.

Over the past fifteen years, while GIS emerged as crucial tools for practice and research in multiple fields, child welfare caseworkers have been slow to adopt the technology. Philadelphia would be well positioned to integrate these tools into the IOC project, as GIS inherently complements clinical social work practice.

Ask any social worker to name a guiding philosophy in considering how to best serve their clients, and you’ll likely hear something about considering the “person in environment.” This is the idea that people are best understood within their own environmental context, both on an individual and collective level – from their relationships, schools and work places to the political condition and economic health of their country. A fundamental aspect of GIS is locating people in their environment, complementing the work of those providing direct services, such as casework.

For years, child welfare social workers have used tools such as ecomaps – diagrams that plot out the relationships in a client’s life – and genograms to visualize the relationships within their clients’ lives, and GIS build on this practice while adding a geographic component. These spatial relationships might include where clients live in relation to resources and hazards or where trained foster parents are lacking in an area, enabling caseworkers to better target recruitment efforts. Training in GIS would allow caseworkers to truly understand their clients within their environment.

The IOC initiative in Philadelphia is now in its third year of implementation. The approach has created ten community umbrella agencies throughout the city to effectively relieve DHS of all case management duties in order to improve eventual outcomes for children in the child welfare system. DHS now provides monitoring, oversight and quality assurance, along with handling all child abuse or neglect investigations, while the ten umbrella agencies provide case management services to families involved with DHS. As of November 2014, all 10 umbrella agencies are up and running in Philadelphia communities.

Recently, DHS reported an increase in new cases resulting from new legislation in Pennsylvania, including the expansion of the definition of child abuse and expansion of the professions identified as mandated reporters. According to the July 2015 report by the citywide community oversight board, the agency reported a 68 percent increase in hotline calls, 13 percent increase in investigations, and 46 percent increase in the total number of active cases from February 2014 to 2015.

While many involved with the IOC initiative cite confusion over caseworker roles and responsibilities and high caseloads as a result of these increases, early outcomes of the new approach are positive, particularly regarding DHS visitation to children and families under its supervision. According to the same report, compliance by DHS staff with visitation requirements for all children increased from an average monthly rate of 70 percent in January 2015 to 87 percent in May 2015, while visitation compliance for children 5 years of age or younger also increased from 64 percent in January 2015 to 86 percent in June 2015.

When the IOC re-organization was in its first stages, Knapp helped one umbrella agency’s directors determine the best location for its new office, in order to be as centrally located within the assigned districts as possible, as well as mapped out various resources within the district so that directors could better visualize the makeup of their districts.

Now, he most often uses GIS in his quarterly data reporting by measuring the distance from children’s homes of origin to placement. He also recounts using the technology to assign new cases to the umbrella agencies’ zones. “The whole purpose of the CUA [community umbrella agency] zones is to keep kids in their communities, so we map their address and it tells us what CUA they’re in,” Knapp said.

With all of these uses, Knapp believes DHS could use GIS “for a lot more.”

While decentralization as a whole isn’t unique to Philadelphia, he believes the ”hyper local” modeling of the CUA zones is. “I don’t think anyone’s done it on such a small scale,” he said, adding that the geography component is what is keeping the project so community-focused.

Currently, the individual CUAs don’t have access to GIS. Although the city holds an enterprise license, meaning the programs are available to DHS workers who know how to use them, this license doesn’t extend to the private CUAs that contract with DHS.

While the CUA system allows each agency to have a specific geographic area of expertise, Heather Miller, caseworker supervisor at CUA 9, Turning Points for Children, believes that GIS would extend that expertise by enabling her and her team to better visualize the resources and hazards within their district.

“If I’m looking for daycares and I pull up by zip codes, I may not necessarily be in my CUA region, because we share some zip codes with CUA 10,” Miller said. She believes that the specialized zones allow her agency to foster better relationships with the treatment providers within their area.

“If there was an interactive map that could show us where provider agencies actually lie, [for example], here’s the school, here’s the daycare, here’s the churches, here’s the treatment centers,” these relationships would only continue to flourish, she said.

While the cost and time involved in upgrading computer hardware, obtaining software licenses, and teaching computer skills in order to get started with GIS can be prohibitive, DHS and the IOC design would only build on its existing goals to improve the safety, permanency and well-being of the children and families served by DHS by extending access to each CUA.

Each site already employs a director of quality assurance who is responsible for the sort of data-driven decision making that GIS is designed to support. It would, and should, be a natural accompaniment to the current reform efforts.

Ashleigh BrunsinkAshleigh Martell Brunsink is a second year MSW candidate at the School of Social Policy and Practice. Brunsink graduated from Johnson University’s School of Business and Public Leadership with a B.S. in Nonprofit Management and Bible in May of 2011. 

This story has been published in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2). In the run up to the 2016 Presidential Election, the school launched “SP2 Penn Top 10, a comprehensive multimedia initiative in which renowned SP2 faculty members analyze and address the most pressing social justice and policy issues.”

Part of the project is the creation of stories produced by “SP2 Penn Top 10 Fellows,” graduate students from the School who are trained in solution-based journalism using the Journalism for Social Change curriculum.  

Written By Chronicle Of Social Change

GIS and Child Welfare: A Map Is Worth More Than a Thousand Words was originally published @ The Chronicle of Social Change and has been syndicated with permission.

Photo by Leonardo Rizzi


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