Innovative Project Maps the Movement of Foster Care

A little over a year ago, Robert Latham reached out to John Jackson, general counsel for the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF). He had a fairly substantial request: all of the records available for all of the children who had been placed into foster care.

A few hundred dollars and a month later, he received a spreadsheet with nearly 300,000 youth records and 77.8 million data points, dating back to the early 2000s and including children who had been in foster care as far back as the 1980s.

“My Microsoft Excel wouldn’t even open it,” said Latham, who is the associate director of the Children and Youth Law Clinic at the University of Miami.

Robert Latham, Associate Director, Children & Youth Law Clinic at the University of Miami. Photo by Florida Guardian ad Litem Program

This month, Latham went live with one of the most compelling presentations of child welfare data ever conceived. He mapped the placement paths for every child in foster care since 2002, and then produced a public website through which anyone can visualize the path of a single youth through the system.

“The aggregate is what we’re used to talking about,” Latham said. “But we struggle to pull it down to one single kid.”

Selecting any single case will produce a map showing the movement of the child through the system, along with a chronological list of placements. Hovering over any placement, a reader can learn the length of the stay; if it was a home, whether or not it was a relative or foster parent; and what the stated reason was for the placement ending.

The data set Latham received from DCF included the individual numerical identification for each youth, as well as the names of foster parents and relative caregivers. While he refused to agree to any limitations on use of the data, he has anonymized the entirety of the public set, though he concedes that if you knew “about five consecutive placement dates, you could reverse engineer” and try to locate a single child.

Even more importantly, Latham has created data sets that hone in on the truly egregious cases where dozens, or even hundreds, of placement shifts occur. Among the subsets that one can access:

  • Youth who died while in foster care
  • Youth who were involuntarily committed 10 or more times
  • Youth who ended up in correctional facilities 10 or more times
  • Youth who entered foster care after an adoption

He calls the site “This Is Not Okay: Visualizing Foster Care Placement Instability.”

“I have not had a single person look at these things and say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s fine,’” Latham said.

In Youth Services Insider’s humble opinion, the site seems to carry massive potential for the work of researchers, journalists, advocates and policymakers. Already, two reporters for the Tampa Bay Times have used the data as the basis for a story about the small but significant group of Florida foster youth who moved more than a dozen times in a single year.

Latham’s mapping project traces the placement history of more than 200,000 foster youth.

Latham said the Times piece, and the subsets he created for the mapping website, speak to the same pattern in Florida’s system: many youth experience four or fewer placements, and the mean and median are dragged to the right by a small contingency for which the system utterly fails at stability.

Describing the distribution, he said, “You have the vast majority of kids clustered around three or four placements, and then a long tail that shows this exponential decay.”

Latham said he is “happy to help” anyone who wants to run more complex queries on the data set and the maps. For his own part, he has begun to publish a blog on “This Is Not Okay” that shares his own analyses of the data. An early post drilled into removals on and around the big holidays to see if there is truth to the notion that removals go up around those times.

“My day job is direct education, so this is a hobby on the side,” Latham said. “I have an ill-formed list in my head of things to look at. But the idea of other people using this is so exciting to me.”

Now that the project is live, he said he has a “huge fear” that “DCF will go and try to shut this hole,” closing off future information for the site. He pointed to the agency’s decision in September to deny a media request for details about the identity and location of foster parents in the state. [That decision came at a fairly tense time, just weeks after a foster parent was shot by the mother of children in her care.]

Latham said one of the best possible uses of the set would be deep dives on the various subsets he created, all of which isolate groups of children who languished in care while also moving frequently. He likened the potential here to child fatality reviews, where teams assess what might have been missed or mishandled when a child dies from maltreatment.

“Those reviews are powerful things,” he said. “Any of these kids deserves that kind of a review.”

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John Kelly
About John Kelly 1011 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.