Hilton Foundation Bets Big on Big Data to Understand Trajectories of Transition-Aged Foster Youth

Policy makers, social services administrators and social engineers of all stripes have long grappled with the challenges of understanding how services and experiences during early childhood affect outcomes later in life.

Does participating in a nutrition program have an effect on educational achievement?

Does receipt of early home health visiting services lower a child’s risk of being
involved in the child welfare system?

These are some of the questions that linking administrative data from various public agencies could answer. It is hardly sexy work, and requires a tremendous amount of data management and permission from public agencies. But being able to link data available when children are born all the way through life, and ultimately to death records, offers a treasure trove of information that could change social services profoundly.

The Children’s Data Network (CDN), led by researchers Emily Putnam-Hornstein and Jacquelyn McCrosky of USC’s School of Social Work, was created to focus on those types of questions, with a particular eye on young children in Los Angeles County. With a recently awarded $800,0000 grant  from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, it will expand its scope to include the connection between transition-aged youth services and outcomes.


“One of the biggest barriers a lot of researchers and grant makers and practitioners have is trying to access data,” said Hilton Senior Program Officer Jeannine Balfour, in a statement released announcing the grant last August. “This idea of having one entity doing this, taking the bull by the horns and trying to get as much administrative data as possible so it is more accessible, is a win-win for everyone.”

CDN was created in 2013 with a seed grant of $1 million from First Five LA after the funders identified the difficulty of accessing administrative data for young children. The initial mission was to link data on child welfare and well-being for children through age five in California — with a focus on Los Angeles.

The full understanding of how the CDN’s work impacts policies and interventions for youth and families in California cannot be determined just yet. There are still challenges on the horizon, such as how to effectively use linked data to influence social policies affecting children.

Mark Courtney, a researcher at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, who is famous for his series of studies on transition-aged foster youth in the Midwest, sees CDN’s work as a boon to the field.

“Marginalized families and children come into contact with multiple government programs,” Mark Courtney said in an email sent to The Chronicle. “Unfortunately, the manager of each distinct program obtains through that program’s data system, at best, only a partial glimpse of the lives that program affects. By integrating data across government programs, the Children’s Data Network promises to give program managers a more comprehensive view of the needs of the populations they serve and policymakers the kind of big-picture perspective that forms the basis of sound social policy.”

The Hilton Foundation has made transition-aged foster youth a priority – targeting New York City and Los Angeles. It has already invested in the work of CDN co-director Putnam-Hornstein: she received $125,000 to research and analyze the relationship between California birth and Child Protective Services (CPS) records.

The product of that grant, California’s Most Vulnerable Parents: A Population-Based Examination of Youth Involved with Child Protective Services, showed that one in four teens in foster care in Los Angeles County give birth before age 20, and as many as 40 percent of these young mothers have a second child during their teen years.

The new Hilton grant will expand the infrastructure needed to grow CDN’s existing projects. It will also help pay for a dedicated post-doctoral fellow to spend two years housed at CDN gaining expertise in analyzing large-scale administrative data.

“The Post-doc position is important to the field at large because, frankly, we do not have enough academics or other researchers who have extensive experience in the analysis of large-scale, event-level, administrative data system,” said Putnam-Hornstein in an interview. “It is a philanthropic investment in the next generation of researchers, with an eye on finding and training someone who has an interest in transition-age foster youth and will subsequently have a career where they develop an agenda of research about that population.”

Additionally, the grant will fund a report to be released by Children’s Data Network by the end of this year on transition-aged foster youth. The report, Transition Age Youth Profile, will take public data available on older foster youth and create a simplified narrative.

The information on transitional foster youth will be released in two separate reports – one focusing on Los Angeles County and one on the state of California.

Judith Fenlon is the editor of the Money and Business Section of The Chronicle of Social Change.

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Judith Fenlon
About Judith Fenlon 165 Articles
Money & Business Editor for The Chronicle of Social Change