Using data to build hope: Child welfare advocates now use data mapping to improve services and community health

It seems like a simple concept: To better keep children safe and strengthen vulnerable families, resources should be placed in the neighborhoods where they are needed most.

But that does not always happen. In reality, the gap between need and support is often too wide.

Now, a technique called data mapping, long used by corporate America to market goods and services to families, is being used to help communities build hope instead.

Child welfare advocates and organizations are beginning to use data mapping to identify trends and tailor their services to improve the health and well-being of children and families in a particular community.

Data mapping uses Geographic Information Systems to layer specific demographic information along geographic boundaries. For example, researchers can examine the correlation between rates of poverty and reports of child abuse in a neighborhood, ZIP code, county or state. Other common demographic factors explored by child welfare experts include the number of single-parent households, crime rate and density of public housing.

By plugging in different data, researchers can begin to understand why certain areas become hot spots for incidents of child abuse and neglect and high rates of foster care.

The research often prompts further questions. Recent data-mapping projects in Florida, for example, determined that foster care rates were lower in areas with large immigrant populations. The reasons then can be examined.

The maps provide decision-makers with a greater understanding of trends and community needs. In particular, family court judges – who have the final say in determining a child’s future – have expressed interest in how this information can shape their perception of the families that come before them. If judges see large concentrations of child abuse cases from a particular street or neighborhood, caseworkers can begin to target intensive prevention measures.

Government officials also use data mapping to determine if a location might be underserved by services such as substance abuse treatment, respite care or job-training programs that can play a part in keeping children safe and families together.

Information gleaned from data mapping also can help community organizers bring neighborhoods together. Problems that seem intractable or complex suddenly become easier to understand, and residents and stakeholders are encouraged to join in common cause to find solutions.

Casey Family Programs is involved in a data-mapping project in northwest Georgia and northeast Alabama counties where rates of foster care are high. The Appalachian Neighbor Permanency Project brings together child welfare leaders with other regional stakeholders in juvenile justice, mental health, education, the judiciary and law enforcement.

The project will review child and family data and examine current practices and initiatives designed to strengthen families, keep children safely at home and expedite permanency for children in foster care. The plan is to take what is learned to develop and implement new child welfare strategies.

The Appalachian Neighbor Permanency Project dovetails with the fundamental mission of Casey Family Programs by using a variety of innovative tools and methods to protect vulnerable children, strengthen families and build communities of hope.