In Hillsborough County, Fla., child welfare workers no longer have to call schools to find out whether youths under their supervision have been missing classes. The school district sends attendance records to the case workers electronically. Those workers also are informed electronically every time a court hearing for one of their clients is changed, and they will soon be notified when the cases are closed.
Hillsborough Kids, a nonprofit that provides child welfare services for the county, gets this information under a database-sharing arrangement with various state and local organizations, including family courts, law-enforcement and juvenile justice agencies, school boards, mental health agencies and court-appointed guardians.
That puts the county, which includes Tampa, at the forefront of a movement by youth- and family-serving agencies to share data about the people they serve in order to spot children who are headed for trouble or already there. Supporters say the approach also boosts efficiency and accountability, reduces record-keeping errors and makes it easier to determine program effectiveness and spot emerging demographic changes.
“We will be spending more time on the families and less time on the case records,” predicted Chris Card, executive director of Hillsborough Kids.
Sharing databases, however, can be complicated by different data requirements and incompatible technology among federal, state and local agencies. Costs vary, based on such factors as the number of agencies involved and the sophistication of their computer systems, and whether the capability is being added as part of a general computer system upgrade. In Washington, D.C., agencies will be able to share data with the District of Columbia Superior Court through a five-year, $65 million computer system modernization.
What’s more, electronic data-sharing raises issues of security and privacy, as information becomes readily accessible to more people.
“Whenever information is collected, there is an increased level of danger that privacy will be violated,” said Nancy Sidote Salyers, co-director of Fostering Results, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Salyers was the presiding judge of the Child Protection Division of the Cook County Circuit Court in Illinois when it entered a database-sharing arrangement in the late 1990s that today involves the court and court clerk, the child welfare agency and court-appointed guardians.
Data-sharing arrangements vary by state and local data requirements, the size and budgets of the child welfare systems and the computer software that’s used:
• Hillsborough Kids relies on a Web-based system that has 11 levels of access for individuals. Card said the system received more than 3 million hits during its first 13 months of operation and is still expanding.
• Washington, D.C., which was required by a 2001 federal law to integrate its social services and district court data, relies on so-called “middleware” software from SeeBeyond Technology Corp. that takes differently formatted data from various agencies and presents the information in a way that can be viewed by all of them. The shared database system eventually will link such agencies as child and family services, health, mental health, housing, police, the public schools, the local courts and the city attorney.
City officials predict that data sharing will help prevent cases in which patterns of abuse become apparent only after a tragedy, such as a child’s death from abuse or neglect.
“Historically, information on abuse and neglect was held by schools, by the police, and by child and family services and the department of health, but none of these agencies shared the information, so nobody saw the pattern,” said Suzanne Peck, the chief technology officer for Washington.
• Judge James Payne of juvenile division of the Superior Court of Marion County (Indianapolis) said his court participates in an electronic information-sharing arrangement with law enforcement, education and welfare agencies. “The more information I have, the better decisions I make,” he said.
Among the occasional rough spots, Payne said, are lags in getting information after an agency upgrades its computer system and difficulties in dealing with rules and databases of different organizations. Some of the 11 school districts in his jurisdiction update attendance records daily, while others do so weekly.
Proponents say the ability to transfer and view information electronically could reduce the chances that leads will be missed because of lost paperwork, bureaucratic roadblocks or the failure of harried workers to stay in touch.
This sharing of information, however, raises concerns that people will get access to confidential data for which that they do not have a legitimate need. Salyers, from Pew, emphasizes the need for rules about how long information must be maintained for sharing purposes and how it can be used.
For instance, in Hillsborough County, information is supposed to be shared only with authorities who have a need and a right to know, and only after families have signed releases allowing their information to be shared, according to Card of Hillsborough Kids.
Mark Soler, president of the Washington-based Youth Law Center, said confidential information can legitimately be shared to help children, assuming the parents have given consent. “But if people who have access to that information are not involved in developing better services for the child, then that is an improper use of the information,” he said.
Applying that standard is not always clear-cut. In Mobile County, Ala., District Attorney John Tyson Jr. gathers information about students who have been habitually truant or suspended for serious violations of school policy, such as bringing a weapon to school. His office informs the families about the consequences of the behavior and sometimes asks them to participate in assessments to determine whether they should be referred for assistance.
Tyson said he is trying to help children by intervening early, but some juvenile justice advocates say he is unfairly labeling certain youths as troublemakers. (See “Prosecutor’s Database of ‘Future Criminals’ Draws Fire,” March 2003.)
In Indianapolis, Payne said that people inside and outside the system have expressed concern that someone could get access to information and share it inappropriately. Advocates of database sharing point to controls on the information, including different levels of access given to different staffers. Proponents say that under various laws, much of the information is allowed or even required to be shared anyway. Families typically have to sign off on the release of information to obtain certain services, although they do not necessarily know that the material will be shared electronically.
Push of a Button
Agency administrators say database sharing has made their workers more efficient.
In Fairfax County, Va., a system set up by Harmony Information Systems allows staff members from the social service and health agencies, the juvenile court and the school system to share information about cases for which they have shared responsibility, if the parents or guardians have given permission. Gail Ledford, the county’s manager of comprehensive services for at-risk children, youth and families, said the system lets her quickly run reports on cases for probation officers.
“With a push of a button, we can look at the entire history,” she said.
In Florida, Card said his agency recently received a tip that a family in which the parents were under investigation for abuse and neglect was about to leave town. Although Hillsborough Kids was not involved with the family, staffers used the shared database to determine which agency had the family under investigation and quickly got word to authorities who could deal with the situation.
“Had this call come in previously, it would have taken us a day just to see who this family was,” Card said.
Proponents say that sharing data could reduce the time spent tracking down documents and duplicating other people’s efforts, and reduce how often families have to give their personal information to different agencies. They also say joint databases increase accountability within a system, as different entities can better observe the effectiveness of others.
“This is a policy wave that’s coming,” said Priscilla Skillman, interim executive director of the Council for Court Excellence in Washington. “I know this is an issue that all courts and related child welfare agencies are struggling with.”
Director of Community Resources
Hillsborough Kids Inc.
101 S. Franklin, Suite 201
Tampa, FL 33602
Anne Drissel, Program Manager
Office of the Chief Technology Officer
District of Columbia
441 4th St. NW, Suite 920 South
Washington, DC 20001
Manager of Comprehensive Services
for At-Risk Children, Youth and Families
12011 Government Center Parkway, Suite 500
Fairfax, VA 22035-1102
Harmony Information Systems
2700 South Quincy St., Suite 500
Arlington, VA 22206
SeeBeyond Technology Corp.
800 E. Royal Oaks Dr.
Monrovia, CA 91016-6347