Los Angeles Hopes Tech Investment Can Improve Visitation for Foster Children

Los Angeles County’s child welfare agency is betting that improved technology and analysis can make its family visitation process more efficient for kids and parents.

The county’s Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) will use a $130,000 contribution from philanthropic partners and $30,000 in county funds to move ahead with a plan to use high-tech mapping to improve court-ordered visitations for the 18,000 children placed in the county’s foster care system.

A motion passed by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday set aside the $30,000 in county money to move ahead with a contract with child welfare think tank Chapin Hall to provide technical assistance for a new way to help children in foster care maintain relationships with their biological families. That money is considered a match to the $130,000 from the Bowen H. and Janice Arthur McCoy Charitable Foundation, First 5 LA ,the Pritzker Foster Care Initiative and the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation.

“Working with Chapin Hall to create visitation efficiencies will potentially have a sweeping impact on tens of thousands of children countywide,” said DCFS Director Bobby Cagle, in an email statement to The Chronicle of Social Change. “Thanks to our philanthropic partners, DCFS is able to better support children and families with this very important step toward reunification.”

After being placed into foster care, regular visitation is a critical part of children maintaining relationships with their family. It is a crucial part of the reunification process, and in Los Angeles County, that task is complicated by the high number of children in care and the need to facilitate long rides across the county’s traffic-choked roads.

The new DCFS contract with the Chicago-based Chapin Hall will help optimize the ability of DCFS to provide visitations for children through geospatial analysis of the locations of children, caregivers and visitation centers. That information will be included in a new app for the agency that will help reduce the amount of time parents and children spend in transit for visitation.

“Right now, all of those trips look like a bowl of spaghetti,” said Dana Weiner, a researcher at Chapin Hall who specializes in data-driven approaches for the child-welfare field. “We’re going to try to untangle the bowl of spaghetti and make some really strategic choices about the places where parents and children can see each other, so they can all travel less.”

According to DCFS, the county spends about 2 million hours each year coordinating more than 4 million hours of visits. Helping children in foster care maintain relationships with their families has been linked to a greater likelihood of a child’s being reunified with family.

About 36 percent of children who were removed from their homes in 2016 were reunified with their parents 12 months after removal, below the national standard of 40.5 percent. In L.A., the reunification process can take much longer.  The length of time to reunification averages 10.2 months in L.A. County, about twice as long as the the national average.

In September 2016, the Board of Supervisors called on DCFS to create a plan to improve visitation. After DCFS created an initial plan in March 2017, professionals from both the technology and foster care fields collaborated on potential solutions at the #HackFosterCareLA event.

Tuesday’s board motion indicates that the county is proceeding with other parts of the new visitation plan.

DCFS will work with tech consulting firm Sidebench to develop an in-house app for social workers and human services aides, the staff members who are charged with arranging transportation of children in care.

The department’s plan also includes deploying about 20 staff members as “air-traffic controllers” to coordinate the court-ordered visits in many DCFS offices that serve as visitation centers. To help create better visitation plans, DCFS may also expand opportunities for unmonitored visits and recruit relatives, family friends and services providers to act as trained volunteer “visitation coaches” who could help parents learn how to have positive, meaningful visits.

Finally, the department will decide later this year whether it will enter into partnerships with ridesharing services like HopSkipDrive that would be able to help transport children, caregivers and families to and from visits.

L.A County’s efforts to improve its visitation program should spark interest from other jurisdictions, said Weiner of Chapin Hall.

“If we can figure this out in L.A., this can be an example for other places across the country to examine the issue and come up with solutions,” Weiner said. “We’re starting with the most challenging place to do this.”

Sara Tiano contributed to this article.

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Jeremy Loudenback
About Jeremy Loudenback 257 Articles
Jeremy is the child trauma editor for The Chronicle of Social Change.

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