Child Welfare Ideas from the Experts #4: A National Foster Youth Taxonomy

The Imprint is highlighting each of the policy recommendations made this summer by the participants of the Foster Youth Internship Program (FYI), a group of 12 former foster youths who have completed congressional internships.

The program is overseen each summer by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. Each of the FYI participants crafted a policy recommendation during their time in Washington, D.C. Today we highlight the recommendation of Htet Htet Rodgers, a student at Northwestern State University of Louisiana-Natchitoches.

The Proposal

Rodgers calls for the creation of a “national foster youth taxonomy” that would serve as the central depot of information on all children who enter foster care. Foster youth who were aging out into adulthood would also be granted an account through which they can access their own personal records. She would also require states to transfer data annually to the federal government for a public report on child well-being and health.

The Argument

Htet Htet Rodgers, a student at Northwestern State University

In the business sector, Rodgers argues, many companies have turned to the creation of online taxonomy to ensure accurate and seamless extraction of data and records. This has not occurred in the child welfare space, so important transfers of information happen in a slow and unreliable fashion.

A taxonomy is a categorization tool that maps data fields from different systems and steers the information to a master field set. This, Rodgers says, will prevent a youth’s records from getting screwed up because one state or county classifies by “family name” and another by “surname.” Within a taxonomy framework, various people and parts of systems could share and enter information related to a single youth.

This taxonomy would also improve the federal understanding of what’s happening with foster youth, writes Rodgers. The Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) collects placement and demographic information, and the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System monitors the nature of maltreatment reports and substantiation.

But a taxonomy, Rodgers argues, could allow for national data on the well-being of foster youth: life-skills classes attended, grades in school, doctor’s visits, etc.

In Her Own Words

Rodgers worked for the Louisiana Department of Child and Family Services as a peer support representative and observed how its case-management system worked.

“Whenever we submitted files and audits to the Department of Child and Family Services, we had to print out every single note to put into the files, and at times the files went missing or would be incomplete when they returned. I recall times where we had to wait several weeks to receive a new case file from another region in our own state. That process was even longer if the youth came from another state.”

The Imprint‘s Take

The central problem Rodgers proposes to address here is the movement of critical information about youth in care. It is well known that this can be sloppy and slow, and we have personally heard from youth who had to wait weeks to register for public school while their records dragged behind them during a placement change in foster care.

We’d suspect that the number of youth who move from one county or parish to another is exponentially higher than the number of youth who move states while in foster care. So the acutest need for seamlessness is at the state level.

The national taxonomy envisioned by Rodgers would ensure smoother interstate transition, and could lead to a world of opportunities for national research and analysis on the lives of foster youth. There is a growing interest in giving well-being metrics a bigger role in the assessment of child welfare performance, and such a structure would be a gateway to this.

Two major concerns that would need to be addressed in either a state or national taxonomy:

Cost: This structure will cost many millions of dollars to build, and a less-but-still-significant amount to maintain and operate. No doubt it would be worth it to improve the lives of foster youth, but the price tag is a political factor.

Rodgers does not specify an existing federal law to amend with these requirements. AFCARS collection and Child and Family Services reviews are part of the deal under the IV-E foster care entitlement, so they are tied to a massive federal-state cost share. The taxonomy would either have to be part of IV-E, or perhaps a piece of standalone law that authorized a hefty chunk of money to help states build it.

Security: We would be amassing a national taxonomy with personal information for millions of children. Securing that against the efforts of hackers and cyber attacks is critical. A national taxonomy centralizes the risk of this, as it would include records from 50 states instead of one. But the federal government might be better equipped to protect that registry; otherwise, it’s giving attackers 50 different taxonomies to try for.

Click here to read the full report, including all of the FYI proposals.

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