Gambling on Data-Driven Foster Parent Recruitment in Las Vegas

As jurisdictions across the nation struggle to meet the demand for licensed foster homes, many agencies have been driven to seek out new methods of recruitment. In the states of Washington, Iowa and Texas, child-welfare agencies are ramping up new recruitment efforts.

In Nevada and elsewhere, this means turning to data-driven approaches to better identify and recruit families who can make up for the shortage of foster homes. One strategy that has been used by a few jurisdictions to boost the number of licensed caregivers brings the slick precision of Madison Avenue to foster-parent recruitment.

A technique dubbed “market segmentation” allows agencies to better understand the attributes of successful foster parents in a given area and which groups are more likely respond to foster-parent recruitment efforts. In looking at the impact location has on foster-parent recruitment, the approach utilizes data from consumer-research firm Nielsen and uses ArcGIS software to work with maps and geographic information.

Nielsen has traditionally collected demographic and consumer data in media markets, colloquially known as “the Nielsen ratings,” usually with the goal of helping advertisers know their audiences.

By divvying up a broad group of consumers into several categories according to their specialized attributes, ages and interests, Nielsen’s data helps companies home in on likely customers, find geographic areas where potential customers may reside and create targeted advertising campaigns that are liable to resonate with them.

For example, Nielsen’s Prizm software sums up “Fast-Track Families” as middle-aged parents with upper-middle-class incomes, a penchant for purchasing the latest technology and who enjoy outdoor activities like camping and fishing.

The approach has been tailored to the needs of child-welfare agencies through a program from the National Resource Center for Diligent Recruitment (NRCDR), a project of the Children’s Bureau’s AdoptUSKids.

Through grants funded by the federal Department of Health and Human Services through the Administration for Children and Families, NRCDR has provided data-driven foster-parent recruitment strategies in recent years to New Jersey, Arizona, Clark County in Nevada, Rhode Island and Kentucky, among others.

In order to find improve foster-parent recruitment efforts through market segmentation, NRCDR grantees receive more than 150 pages of detailed information about where the most likely prospective foster parents live and information on their lifestyle, media, consumption and neighborhood choices.

Before agencies use the software, NRCDR encourages agencies to understand who their best foster parents are. The assumption, according to NRCDR consultant John McInturf, is that people with similar interests tend to live in the same types of neighborhoods.

“The concept is that birds of a feather flock together,” McInturf said. “When they run that data, they find out what they know about their most successful foster parents.”

To start the process, agencies work to identify the demographic characteristics of their most successful foster parents. By translating these attributes into certain socioeconomic and “lifestage” categories that the Nielsen data offers, agencies may be able to better find and target foster parents. Demographics, and better marketing, could hold the key to improving foster-parent recruitment, according to NRCDR staff.

Using the Nielsen data can help to locate foster parents in areas with few licensed families, which can help place children removed from their homes as close as possible to their family members and communities. The hope is that better foster parents will also mean improved placement stability and permanency for children.

But, most importantly, it can help some agencies by allowing them to more prudently use limited resources for recruiting.

“People can’t stand in front of a Walmart if that’s not where you’re getting your parents from,” said NRCDR Director Jill Marshall May. “[A data-driven approach] pushes them to focus on different places. It might be a dollar store, for example. These are things that can make a difference.”

NRCDR staff say that every jurisdiction is different, with a unique mix of foster parents. But the approach offers a way for agencies to measure recruitment and retention, and May says that several jurisdictions have reported successes using the market segmentation techniques.

“When you start laying out the data for them, and they start seeing things in black and white, they say ‘No wonder that hasn’t been working,’” May said.

In Nevada, the Clark County Department of Family Services (DFS) received a federal diligent recruitment grant to explore recruitment strategies with a special focus on those for older youth, sibling groups and children with special health care needs.

Oscar Benavides, a supervisor in the Resource Development and Retention Unit at DFS, says that the agency has long struggled to find quality foster parents in the county, an area that includes Las Vegas.

Before, Benavides says, staff from his agency would go to “any community event we could get our hands on.”

“Any community organization in the county that was putting on an event,” he said, “we would call them and say can you give some space, ‘Can you give us a table there to talk to people about becoming a foster parent?’”

Benavides said that hosting so many information sessions forced the agency to stretch its recruitment resources thin at times, and the results were sometimes disappointing.

“It was kind of like just throwing a net out into the sea and just seeing what would come back,” he said. “We were finding the numbers, but we were not finding the quality that we wanted.”

Thanks to the diligent recruitment grant, Benavides and the recruitment unit at DFS looked at the agency’s successful foster parents, gathering the demographic characteristics of foster parents with more than two years of experience and a history of no disruptions or investigations.

Over the past year, Benavides and his team has started to put into practice ideas driven from the data review. The data gave them a better idea of where the most successful foster parents live in the Las Vegas area, the type of things they like to do and even what they like to listen to and read.

They have already made some changes, starting with being more selective.

“We look at an event that is happening in the community, we see where it’s located, we look at population that the organizers of the event are targeting and see if it matches with what we want,” Benavides said. “It’s only then that we start moving our wheels and see if we can get into that event.”

It has also led Benavides and his team to rethink outreach strategies.

“Instead of deciding to put another ad in the paper, we are now looking at this data and now we say that it’s actually better to put a billboard in this or that area because the data suggests that our foster parents probably live in this area or drive through the area on a daily basis,” Benavides said. “A billboard is going to be more efficient than a newspaper that they may not even read, based on the data we saw.”

Changing the focus of DFS’ efforts to locate more quality licensed foster families has also helped DFS find families that want to foster, not just families that wanted to adopt a child as soon as possible. Understanding that led to a decision to change DFS’ messaging and a whole new branding campaign.

“We were getting a lot of people who wanted to adopt, rather than foster,” he said. “Part of it was that we were making people think we were like an adoption agency. When we changed that, we started getting more of the right people.”

There are limits to the market-segmentation approach, as McInturf of NRCDR is quick to point out. For the approach to work, a jurisdiction must be relatively large, with at least 1,000 foster parents. And the approach is geared toward just recruiting the types of foster families that have been successful in the past.

“You’re not picking up a new market, it’s doing the same market better,” he said.

Benavides in Las Vegas says the impact of the initiative has been positive so far, but since they just started rolling out the new recruitment tactics, it may take a while for them to learn whether they’re getting more and better foster parents.

But using the new approach borrowed from the corporate world has helped Benavides realize that reaching and retaining foster parents can take a few lessons from the private sector, something he’s told his team.

“Any type of product that wants to be sold these days utilizes a similar approach,” Benavides said. “Because you don’t want to just put out the word that I have this product and you’re telling your message to the wrong people. You’re just losing money that way.”

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Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change 352 Articles
Jeremy is a West Coast-based senior editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at