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Fall 2005
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Groundbreaking Approach in Washington State

Bringing Foster Care Management into the 21st Century with GIS

By Tiffany Potter, Scientific Technologies Corporation

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Using the acetate capabilities, social workers can add their own layers to the map.

Every year in the United States, approximately 800,000 children enter the foster care system. An outdated management system exacerbates this already difficult time in a child's life. A recent study conducted by the Urban Institute showed that more than 90 percent of states report difficulty identifying appropriate adoptive families, resulting in longer stays within the foster care system. The study also showed that 88 percent of states are currently working to improve their child welfare case management process.

The consequences of the nation's failure in this area, to both the children in the system and the nation as a whole, are evident in this year's study by Casey Family Programs. (Established by United Parcel Service founder Jim Casey, Casey Family Programs is a Seattle, Washington-based national operating foundation that has served children, youth, and families in the child welfare system since 1966.) The study focused on adults who had spent at least one year in foster care as children—far less than the national average of three years in the system. One-third of these adults currently live at or below the poverty level, and only one-fifth are employed and were determined to be mentally healthy. More than one-half exhibited signs of at least one mental disorder. A full 25 percent were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder—more than six times the rate in the general population and higher than in war veterans.

Case reporting and placement data are often fragmented because of the archaic information management systems used by most social workers. Social workers must search multiple databases to obtain the information necessary to make the best possible placement decision. This time-consuming and inefficient process bogs down an already overloaded system and places additional stress on placement workers. As a result, qualified social workers are becoming increasingly difficult to retain. These shortcomings directly affect the children that the foster system is supposed to protect.

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The distribution of foster homes in the seven counties comprising Region 2.

Washington Governor Christine Gregorian comments: "Each day, foster parents, social workers, police officers, and others strive to do one of the most complex and emotional jobs imaginable—reclaiming young lives too often given up as lost and providing hope to those lives where so little hope seems to exist."

Last year the Washington Department of Social and Human Services (DSHS) settled a multimillion-dollar class action lawsuit filed on behalf of children in the state's foster care system. The suit was filed six years ago on behalf of Jessica Braam and approximately 3,500 other foster children who had been moved three or more times while in foster care. More than one-third of those children were placed in more than eight homes. The settlement agreement required DSHS to make major changes in its system of placing and caring for children in its custody.

Brainstorming an Innovative Approach

The idea for an innovative approach to this daunting problem arose when DSHS workers brainstormed with Esri and Scientific Technologies Corporation (STC), an Esri Business Partner, at the 2004 Washington State Health Conference. It was agreed that STC, a public health informatics company with nearly 20 years of experience, and Esri would collaborate to create a viable solution.

As a result, DSHS authorized a Children's Administration-GIS Pilot Project. DSHS contracted with STC and Esri to create a more robust case management system with integrated GIS. State officials are currently considering replacing the existing system based on the pilot project's success.

According to Pat Brown, program manager for DSHS, "We saw in the pilot application how data mapping would allow our field staff to visualize the relationships among referrals, biological homes, foster homes, schools, and health providers, to name a few, in ways that would dramatically improve the safety, permanency, and well-being of children in out-of-home care."

STC performed an in-depth needs assessment and interviewed social workers before developing the software. Because GIS was one of the focuses of the project, interviewers discovered which spatial issues were most relevant to placement decisions.

The first and most basic task was to integrate all of the aggregate data into one place, which was supported by an Oracle database. This allowed social workers access to all of the available information in a more expeditious manner and provided them with a Web-based interface supported by a central data repository.

Better Visual Tools

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Each acetate layer is separate, allowing social workers to see as many or as few layers as they desire.

The real improvement, however, was in the area of visual tools. "GIS is the best tool I've seen for helping us protect vulnerable kids," says Kenneth Nichols, administrator, Division of Children and Family Services. "Using GIS, we can see where kids are and create wraparound care for them that is both reasonable and cost- effective."

Data visualization is vital in giving social workers a complete understanding of the child's environment. ArcIMS provided the spatial representation of pertinent placement information. By overlaying data, workers were able to perform both overlay and proximity analysis. This gave social workers an effective tool to track children in the foster system as well as their geographic relationship to families, schools, community services, transportation, and other important resources.

According to Neal F. Cotner, a Region 2 Social Work supervisor, "This mapping system added a new dimension in social work practice by raising awareness of the children and their surroundings in a graphic, cohesive manner that could be viewed layer by layer as the social worker saw fit."

For this pilot project, STC completed the address geocoding for the children's administration data using ArcView and the ArcGIS StreetMap extension. Users are able to insert additional information by creating an "acetate" layer. These layers allow caseworkers to add relevant information about the child or location without address geocoding. Information, such as the location of relatives, schools, friends, medical care, and registered sex offenders, could be added or deleted as part of an acetate layer that could be seen or made invisible as the user desired. Spatial analysis also provides maps of available foster homes within a set distance of a child's school district, helping eliminate avoidable changes in environment.

This project has proven the viability and necessity of an updated and vastly improved child care management system with integrated GIS. Washington's children will benefit from caseworkers' improved capacity to make informed, rapid placement decisions. Washington may lead the way for the rest of the nation in foster care management reform.

In response to the current situation, Mary Herrick, an Issaquah, Washington, resident who spent more than seven years in the foster care system, commented, "The Casey Foundation study validates what we have all known—the more homes youths are placed in, the more likely they will have mental health issues, lower educational outcomes, and ultimately less ability to earn above poverty-level wages. It is my hope that as a community we will rise up and take responsibility for our children and that future generations of foster children will have a better life because of our efforts."

For more information, contact Pat Brown, Washington Department of Social and Human Services (e-mail:, tel.: 509-454-6922, Web:, or Tiffany Potter, Scientific Technologies Corporation (e-mail:, tel.: 520-202-3333, Web:

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