Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Calculus of Child Welfare (Partnership for Strong Families, Partnership Connection, July-September 2014)

Every quarter, I get to write an article for the Partnership for Strong Families' newletter, Partnership Connection.  I've been doing this for years, and I love doing it.  It started out with a request for me to contribute an article from the legal perspective focusing on legal issues that foster and adoptive parents and other caregivers would be interested in.  It quickly deteriorated into me just writing about whatever came to mind when I received the reminder email that my article was due (it's only four times a year, but it comes around SO quickly!).

I always try to keep the article focused on child welfare, but often I end up commenting on some book I've read or some parenting experience I have had that ties into the child welfare issue I'm addressing.  Luckily, the responses have been overwhelmingly positive, and that has contributed to my decision to begin this blog.  Keeping work in balance with life is a huge part of my life calculus for sure, and one that I am forever thinking about and adjusting.

So, at least every quarter, I will share my PSF article.  It doesn't look like they copyright it, and even if they did, PSF is such a great organization that I'm certain they'd give me permission to re-publish (have I mentioned I'm an ask forgiveness not permission kind of a gal?).

So, here it is...

The Calculus of Child Welfare
            Full Disclosure:  I just finished reading Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball,” and whether you are a baseball fanatic like my husband, or just married to one like I am, “Moneyball” is a beautifully written and fascinating book. 

When you think about baseball, you can’t help but think about statistics—batting averages, runs batted in, on base percentage, earned run average, and the list goes on.  As a child welfare professional, I have been both a little suspicious and a little jealous of all these seemingly endless items that are painstakingly tracked in connection with the game of baseball.  Baseball seems to measure everything, so they must have it all worked out!  But as hard as we try in the child welfare world to come up with performance metrics, score cards, predictive analytics, and foolproof ways to measure our efforts, prevent serious injury and death of children, and ensure best outcomes, we continue to fall short. 

I always thought it was for a variety of reasons: 1) we’re late to the game and have only recently begun trying to operate in this realm of data and evidence-based outcomes; 2) we’re wasting a lot of time because just like Mark Twain said, “There are three kinds of lies—lies, damned lies, and statistics,” or in other words, why bother because numbers will never tell the truth about the complex world that is child welfare, and 3) even if there is something to be gained from looking at these numbers, we will never have the level of resources dedicated to this task to allow us to do it right.

But after reading “Moneyball,” I feel differently.  Baseball has also struggled both to measure the right things and to properly interpret the many, many numbers they have at their disposal.  The biggest message I took from Lewis’ book is that statistics in and of themselves are not truth, but if you are willing to ask, “Why?”, the statistics and information you gather can help you gain insight into the most important issues you are dealing with, empower you to creatively solve problems and improve outcomes, and allow you to make the most of your limited resources.  The Oakland A's, under the guidance of General Manager Billy Beane, are the case in point that “Moneyball” focuses on, and it is an inspiring story.  If the A's can consistently create a top-notch team in an economical way by understanding the needs of the team and the abilities each player brings to the equation, we in the child welfare profession can do the same thing.

This week, I received the May Scorecards for both the community-based care agencies and child protective investigations, and Partnership and our Circuit 3/8 investigators looked good, as usual, with their measurements of things such as, recurrence of abuse and reentry into the child welfare system, permanence for youth, investigation commencement times, timely closure of cases, case loads, and measures related to education and administrative costs.  My Children’s Legal Services team is also in preparation for our Northeast Regional Review of our work, where we will be evaluated on things such as case load size, quality of legal writing, quality of legal decision making and documentation, timeliness of adjudication of dependency and permanence, courtroom preparation and skills, efforts to address children’s educational, safety, permanence, and well-being needs, and whether children have the appropriate goals and are moving through the court system appropriately.  I have also had the privilege over the last several years of working with Casey Family Programs on the Cold Case Project, where we use predictive analytics to identify the youth in our system of care who are at greatest risk of “aging out” without permanent connections.  We then do in-depth reviews of cases and participate in Permanency Round Tables where we share our findings and help to develop action plans focused on achieving legal permanence.

With all of this information and analysis and grading and comparison, it is easy to get overwhelmed, and even defensive and discouraged.  But I prefer the approach of Billy Beane and the Oakland A's.  I want to find ways to dig into all of this data and make sense out of it so that we can use it to improve our work.  I want to make sure we are tracking the right things and that we are gathering accurate information.  I want to make sure we are making smart decisions about where to focus our resources and how to improve our system.

Also this week, I received a report that indicated that around 25 percent of the children in care in the Northeast Region do not have a father listed for them in our Florida Safe Families Network database (the statewide database we use to record all of our child welfare investigations and cases).  One possibility in response to this report would be to conclude that 25 percent of the children in care in the Northeast Region have no legal father.  Instead, we should be asking where the information came from and whether it is accurate.  Until we understand that, we don’t really know what the problem is and what the best approach would be.  Do we have a data entry problem, do we have a problem with identifying fathers, or do we have a problem with establishing paternity?  Probably a little of each, but until we can get a better handle on the proportions, we don’t know how or where to devote our resources.

I could go on and on, but there is only so much space in this newsletter, so I will just say this:  the data we collect and what we do with it matter.  We should never lose sight of the individual children and families, but we should also spend time gathering information, understanding what it can and can’t tell us, and never being afraid to ask why.  And then, to quote a wise man, “Do. Or do not.  There is no try.”

Kelsey Burnette is the Managing Attorney for Children’s Legal Services, the division of the Department of Children and Families that represents the State of Florida on behalf of the best interests of children in dependency cases.

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