Reimaging child welfare: How purpose-built technology can help a national caseworker crisis

This blog post originally appeared on APHSA’s The Catalyst.

Across the country, caseworkers are experiencing high levels of stress, secondary trauma, burnout. It is a uniquely challenging role in the best of times, but right now, we’re asking caseworkers to do the work of finding and engaging with families in need, with too few resources and too many cases on their plate to give these families the due attention they need.

These demands are eating away at the resilience of caseworkers. And as increasing numbers of caseworkers choose to leave, agencies are finding it difficult to find replacements – both due to the specialization of a job that requires unique education and certification, and the limited pool of qualified applicants to choose from. Meanwhile, caseworkers who remain on the front lines are overly burdened with growing caseload numbers, meaning they get to spend less time engaging with families and children, which compromises the quality of service being offered to people in need.

A child writing on a chalkboard Description automatically generated

All of which is to say: the state of child welfare support in the United States is reaching crisis levels, with each new problem of recruitment, retention, and service delivery exacerbating each other with downstream domino effects. And a major reason for this problem? So many agencies continue to operate with years-old, if not decades-old, technology that is completely ill-equipped to handle the scale of what caseworkers face today.

That was the subject of a recent webinar conversation hosted by Carole Hussey, an HHS market strategist with Evolv Strategy Group, which delved into:

The evolving role of tech in child welfare

Technology already undergirds much of child welfare case work, helping caseworkers to convene child/family team meetings, provide family stabilization support, and stay connected with older youth as they transition out of the system. In fact, as Carole discussed, virtual work with tools such as mobile devices and online portals during the pandemic actually helped increase engagement in some cases, because it made it easier for families to get in touch (and stay in touch) with their caseworkers.

A computer screen with many white labels Description automatically generated

But many agencies are using drastically out-of-date technologies that were originally built to satisfy old reporting requirements. Those practices have long since changed. As agencies and caseworkers shift their focus to prevention, collaboration, and building social systems of care, technology must scale up to meet this challenge. That means purpose-built solutions capable of providing efficiency improvements in everything from cross-program collaboration to stakeholder engagement, to make it easier for caseworkers to manage family case plans.

Using tech to enable prevention and a cross-programmatic system of care

Preventing conditions like poverty and bias, and ensuring that eligible families receive the economic and medical assistance that they need (e.g., SNAP, TANF, Medicaid), are integral to strengthening families and averting the risk of negative child welfare outcomes like neglect or abuse. But this level of prevention and family stabilization is only truly possible with collaborative, cross-programmatic sharing of information across the entire system of care. Siloed programs, siloed funding, and siloed data on family situations effectively leave caseworkers with one hand tied behind their back.

A screenshot of a computer Description automatically generated

What does building a cross-programmatic system of care look like?

Cúram has an out-of-the-box, purpose-built HHS data model, with integrated service delivery, that helps to break down the barriers that previously made these practices impossible. By gradually working together across programs to share processes, communications channels, and service delivery models, purpose-built child welfare solutions can help make it easier and faster for families to engage with caseworkers – while ensuring they don’t need to keep repeating their story over and over again each time.

For example, technology can facilitate virtual meetings that make it more flexible and efficient for caseworkers and families to meet each other. Virtual meetings don’t replace home visits, but they can provide additional support. Removing the need to travel makes it more likely for families to attend meetings – and this feature has helped to improve attendance and engagement.

This is critically important for service deserts, where it is even more difficult to identify and help children who are in serious need of treatment and placement, but do not have access to the necessary services in their area. This means the child won’t get the help they need, and worse, may end up in a situation that creates or exacerbates trauma. Cross-programmatic systems of care that put a premium on sharing data and breaking down barriers to engagement can help ensure caseworkers are engaging families and children who may have previously been harder to reach, both figuratively and literally.

Lifting the burden on caseworkers

These features not only alleviate the burdens on families and children; they can also lighten the load on caseworkers, too, which in turn can help agencies facing a turnover crisis.

Automation can go a long way in helping to augment caseworkers’ jobs. This is not about making them move through caseloads faster, but rather, freeing up caseworkers so they can spend as much time as needed in the field and with each individual family. The goal is to create more quality engagement with families, not faster engagement.

In a child welfare context, that could mean anything from automating the data-sharing processes, so that case files are being more quickly put into the hands of the relevant stakeholders, to expanding the pre-service training and skill development processes. This can ensure that as caseworkers are brought onboard, they can be brought up to speed and deployed into the field faster. Better-equipped caseworkers, each one with the right tools and more time to spend engaging with families, means greater quality of service – and could feasibly reduce the risks of burnout, too.

These examples are just scratching the surface of what technology can do for both caseworkers and the families and children they work with. Purpose-built child welfare solutions like Cúram are no silver bullet to every problem facing an HHS agency. But they are instrumental in alleviating caseworker burnout and staff shortages, while also improving engagement with families and children to ensure they’re receiving the benefits they need, when they need them.

We’re ready to help

Our team is ready to answer your questions and help you transform the delivery of government social services.

Let’s talk