Reimagining Child Welfare: How Purpose-built Technology Can Help a National Caseworker Crisis

By Bill Myers    November 17, 2023

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

These demands are eating away at the resilience of caseworkers. As an increasing number of caseworkers choose to leave, agencies are finding it difficult to replace them due to the specialization of a job that requires unique education and certification—creating a 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 the communities they serve.

Child Welfare Challenges and Trends

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. A major reason for this problem is that 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, a health and human services market strategist with Evolv Strategy Group, which delved into:

  • The national challenges and trends impacting child welfare right now.
  • The technology considerations necessary for creating purpose-built child welfare solutions.
  • How caseworkers can leverage these solutions to both better support families and children and make their own jobs more efficient at creating quality service and time for families.

The Evolving Role of Tech in Child Welfare

Technology already undergirds much of child welfare, 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.

Technology Considerations

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 will help them thrive (e.g., SNAP, TANF, Medicaid) are integral to strengthening families and averting the risk of negative child welfare outcomes like neglect or abuse. However, this level of prevention and family stabilization is only truly possible with collaborative, cross-programmatic information sharing across the entire care system. Siloed programs, siloed funding, and siloed data on family situations effectively leave caseworkers with one hand tied behind their backs.

Purpose-Built for Programs and Families

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

  • Accessibility: It’s important to provide families with access to cross-agency information through self-service web portals and mobile applications. The fact is many families in child welfare or social assistance situations simply don’t know what benefits are available and if/when they even qualify for them. Making information about these programs easily accessible and shareable is key.
  • Cross-sector collaboration: Families engage with multiple service providers. Those providers have to be linked with not just each other but with the family’s community, too. Prevention is about building a support network across all stakeholders to help improve and sustain families’ economic mobility.
  • Mobility and portals: Imagine a banking app where you can’t even see your checking account balance. Web and mobile portals need to be easy, intuitive, and transparent. It’s not just about giving families access to their case files; it’s about inviting them to be a part of their own story.

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, communication 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 stories over and over again each time.

For example, technology can facilitate virtual meetings, making it more flexible and efficient for caseworkers and families to meet each other. Virtual meetings don’t replace home visits but can provide additional support. Removing the need to travel makes it more likely for families to attend meetings.

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 support 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 but can also lighten the load on caseworkers, which 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 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 on board, they can be brought up to speed and get to work faster. Better-equipped caseworkers, each one with the right tools and more time to spend engaging with families, means a greater quality of service, which 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 agency. Still, they are instrumental in alleviating caseworker burnout and staff shortages while also improving engagement with families and children to ensure they receive the right benefits at the right time.

About the Author

Bill Myers

Child Welfare Services Lead and Former Caseworker
Cúram by Merative

Reimagining Child Welfare: How Purpose-built Technology Can Help a National Caseworker Crisis

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