How Tech Ties into Family First

Carole Hussey

Child welfare agencies around the country face intense scrutiny every day as they care for our nation’s most vulnerable population. I have worked with many of the devoted people who staff these agencies around the country, and can attest to the fact that the individuals who choose this field for their life’s work are among the most committed and passionate public servants.

They do not go into this sector for glory or money; they do so because they want to make a difference. They understand that the safety and well-being of children has an impact on their communities.

Child welfare is a reactionary field — most social workers respond to the highest priorities, leaving lower priorities for a “later” that may never come. This introduces risk, not just to the agency, but also to the children and families the agency serves.

The opportunity to build Comprehensive Child Welfare Information Systems (CCWIS) with federal assistance offers a chance for states to better manage and assess their performance. Unfortunately, CCWIS hasn’t been the great opportunity that most thought it would be. The federal funding available to help states build these programs is inadequate to allow the agencies to fully replace their legacy systems, and they are struggling with how to meet some of the design requirements for modernizing antiquated architectures.

Compounding the challenge is the fact that states are having to think about new systems at a time of seismic shifts in federal funding for child welfare. On February 9, 2018, Congress included in the final spending bill the Family First Prevention Services Act to restructure how the federal government funds child welfare programs. Family First includes significant changes to the existing Title IV-E federal reimbursement program, including increased funding for services to prevent foster care, implementation of new requirements and limitations for congregate care placements that will limit federal funding, and increased federal funding for Kinship Navigator Programs.

The intended outcomes of Family First are noble, but the efforts required to implement these changes have far-reaching impacts that will take considerable time, compromise, effort and money.

Many states have already begun to work on CCWIS requirements, design and development. In some cases, however, they haven’t really considered how to redesign the service delivery, data sharing and other program components that are affected by the implementation of Family First. Significant gaps exist in every program that have to be filled to meet the law’s requirements. Many of the system projects are led by IT people, who may not understand the implications of these regulatory changes to policy, practice, processes and reporting.

Ultimately, I fear some states will end up with a newer version of their legacy system, that still does not meet their needs. Practice should drive system development, not the other way around.

As agencies prepare for Family First implementation, they should develop a comprehensive roadmap that defines the business needs, policies, processes and technology needs for the next one to three years, as agencies prepare for Family First implementation. This will allow them to establish an incremental approach to gradually change their operations and add functionality to their CCWIS that will support implementing and claiming for Family First services.

For this roadmap to happen effectively, there must be a bridge between the IT and program/policy teams to ensure that the implementation plans have sufficient reserves in their development schedules to support building the functionality. The Family First implementation teams must have sufficient reserves in their implementation schedules for CCWIS development.

This effort needs to be well-planned and highly coordinated. And all of this has to happen while some agencies struggle with shrinking budgets, and most states do not have the experience or the staff required to navigate this complex process successfully without supplemental resources.

For most states, the 50 percent federal match for CCWIS is not enough. Medicaid has provided a 90 percent match for similar efforts to improve tech infrastructure, and states are doing their best to leverage investments made in those systems in recent years. When mandating significant regulatory reforms, the federal government should consider enhanced funding — not only for the programmatic service delivery, but also for the development of interoperable solutions that adequately support the legislative and practice requirements of these changes.

Family First represents an important step in moving child welfare from a reactive model to a preventative model. It is the biggest reform to hit child welfare in decades. Most of us who have dedicated our lives to child welfare are energized by the potential that Family First offers, but we are also realistic in the effort that it will take to get us there.

Carole Hussey leads consulting engagements in IT planning and consulting for public sector human services clients at Public Consulting Group. She has led efforts for many large-scale, high-risk, enterprise initiatives in various programs including child welfare, SNAP/TANF, early education, home and community-based services, and Medicaid.


If you are interested in reading more about federal child welfare and juvenile justice policy, read our annual special issue “Kids on the Hill: A Special Issue on Child Welfare Policy” by clicking here!


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