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Uniting pertinent data sources to help children and families in crisis

Shared child welfare data in Hillsborough County, Florida, could speed vital preventative work and lead to better outcomes for families.

As part of the implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA), the main federal legislative driver for Hillsborough’s transformational work, Hillsborough County wanted to design a data-sharing prototype platform for showcasing to the state of Florida how an early intervention system could be helpful in identifying cases where a child was at risk of abuse or neglect and, ultimately, help to safely preserve families.

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The challenge

The child welfare system in Hillsborough County, Florida, has been transformed to prevent children from being taken into foster care, and to help children who are already in care to gain permanency or reunification with their families as quickly and safely as possible.

In fulfilling this role, Hillsborough was experiencing some challenges relating to data. There were multiple sources and formats of information on struggling families and vulnerable children, making it difficult for child welfare staff to gain a full picture of a family’s strengths and needs. There was often limited integra-tion and ability for information sharing between the Florida Abuse Hotline counselors, child protective investigators (CPIs), service providers and caseworkers, and there was no dynamic, real-time access to data to assist in safety assessments and crisis needs of the children and families. 

The net result was that the state’s approach tended to be reactive – families were helped after a crisis had occurred, not before. Hillsborough identified data analytics and intelligence sharing as ways of improving services to its residents and becoming more proactive. To succeed, the organization would have to overcome a number of significant challenges: different departments with different rules had to find a way to share data; the public and the many parties involved had to feel confident about data security; and government resistance had to be overcome. 

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The solution

Hillsborough approached EY to help build a Family Preservation and Assessment System. Here, the organization could also leverage two pieces of federal government legislation – the FFPSA and the Comprehensive Child Welfare Information System (CCWIS). The former allows federal reimbursement of certain services, such as substance-abuse treatment, while the latter encourages better systems with greater interoperability and sharing of data. In the words of Ramin Kouzehkanani, Hillsborough County’s CIO: “I felt the Act [FFPSA] presented a unique opportunity.”

The new platform relies on data such as postcodes, gender, age and family relations to match the different sources and create a unified dataset. Using all the aggregated data, an algorithm flags up potential candidates for early intervention to a caseworker based on variables that Hillsborough County has selected as markers of stress in households. The caseworker is then able to identify the most appropriate support to offer the family.

The platform provides an integrated, collaborative system of care which gets “the right data to the right people at the right time.” It also enables assessments to be completed easily and accurately, with a focus on the quality of referrals.

A number of key enablers helped the project succeed. The organization won support from influential government leaders through its collaborative approach. A shared vision was developed to gain buy-in from the top of the county administration right down to frontline workers. Good stakeholder engagement and local co-development were crucial too: a range of partners, including private contractors, NGOs and charities, came together to reach agreements on data sharing and security.

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The impact

The Family Preservation and Assessment System’s pilot program is already changing the way siloed social services are delivered. Executed memorandums of understanding (MoUs) between Hillsborough County and the state of Florida, and between Hillsborough County and the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, are setting a precedent for data sharing and collaboration. These MoUs will be housed in Florida’s state technology agency’s central repository for other municipalities and entities to leverage.

Likely further steps include establishing a community-wide aggregated data lake, identifying further datasets to be included, and extending the current analytics platform to allow for more advanced tools, such as predictive analytics and real-time data visualization. Over time, this should mean better outcomes for all involved – swift and effective interventions for children, the preservation of families and considerable cost saving for the county.

So far, the system has seen a very positive acceptance from users. According to Christopher Card, Chief of Community-Based Care at the nonprofit Eckerd Connects, it is viewed as “the right time and the right project and the right thing to do.”