SafeMeasures®: Providing Accurate Data in Virginia
In late 2007, the Virginia Department of Social Services (VDSS) launched the Children’s Services System Transformation (Transformation) in order to address a number of concerning outcomes regarding Virginia’s child welfare system. Chief among these outcomes were that Virginia maintained the highest rate of children aging out of foster care in the country and had 25% of its children in congregate care settings (group homes and institutions). Through partnerships arranged by then-First Lady Anne Holton with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Casey Family Programs, and NCCD, marked changes began to occur in Virginia. (To learn the whole story of the positive changes that occurred in Virginia, read the full report at the Annie E. Casey Foundation website: http://www.aecf.org/resources/back-on-track/.)
VDSS implemented two key strategies that led to a massive reduction of the number of children in group homes and institutions: financial incentives and leveraging data. First, Virginia uses a state/local funding blend to pay for the placement of children in foster care. Through the help of the Virginia General Assembly, Virginia successfully created financial incentives where community-based placements decreased local match rates, while congregate care placements increased the local match. Obviously this motivated local departments of social services (LDSS) to seek community-based placements. VDSS also invested in resource families and recruitment efforts to help LDSS find these homes. Second, VDSS invested in the creation of a robust performance management system in which data-driven decision making was paramount. (Full disclosure: I headed up this effort within the VDSS Division of Family Services.)
Through tremendous support from VDSS leadership, I was given my own unit to create this performance management system. Immediately after the Outcome Based Reporting and Analysis (OBRA) unit was created in 2008, we were confronted with the reality that data entered into the case management system (OASIS) was rarely reported and even less trusted by LDSS. After struggling to provide client-level data to localities showing an accurate number of children in congregate care, we were finally presented with a solution: SafeMeasures®. SafeMeasures allowed OBRA to provide LDSS with a near real-time view of each unit and worker’s children’s placements. For the first time, LDSS and VDSS had data that was fully vetted, accurate, and trusted.
Once Virginia had accurate data, program staff could target localities with inordinately high numbers of children in congregate care. With the national average of children in these placements at 16%, agencies well above this target were initially approached. SafeMeasures provided regional consultants and recruitment and retention staff with listings of these LDSS so appropriate work could be done to reduce the number of children in restrictive placements. An example of this is Richmond City, where full case reviews of every child in congregate care were conducted to determine whether the congregate care placements were appropriate.
While VDSS program staff worked with LDSS, OBRA used SafeMeasures data to illustrate differences in outcomes between children living in community-based settings versus those in congregate care. The data predictably showed that children raised in families were far better off than those in group homes and institutions. Children in family-based placements spent less time in care and were more likely to achieve permanency.
VDSS now not only had given localities a financial incentive for placing children in a family-based setting, but they now had the data to show who these children were, along with evidence that congregate care settings were not conducive to achieving positive outcomes for these at-risk youth.
Within a three-year window, the results of the Transformation’s effect on congregate care and permanency were staggering. Through dedicated work by LDSS supervisors and social workers, regional consultants, and VDSS program staff, Virginia reduced the number of youth in congregate care settings by 1,094—a 57% decrease. Similarly, Virginia increased the number of children achieving permanency by 27%. To date, Virginia continues to improve its permanency rate, and its congregate care rate remains below the national average.
Matt Wade is a business analyst at NCCD.