The U.S. Administration for Children and Families wants to gain a national picture of what state child welfare systems know about the children and families they serve.
The plan for the State Child Welfare Data Linkages Descriptive Study, proposed recently in the Federal Register, would use surveys with child welfare directors and analysis of state and local data systems to learn how well and how frequently child welfare agencies link their own information with administrative data about children from other sources. The notice does not itemize which other data, but the safest bets would be info held by the criminal justice system, schools, Medicaid providers and mental health agencies.
The goal, per the announcement, is to “inform the ongoing and accurate surveillance of child maltreatment and identify facilitators and barriers to connected data efforts.”
Youth Services Insider is guessing this has come up to some extent in connection with the Family First Prevention Services Act, which offers federal funds for foster care prevention services but only for those programs or models that meet a fairly high threshold of evidence.
One way to obtain the kind of evidence necessary for funding is a randomized control trial (RCT), long considered the gold standard of research and evaluation. But there are two barriers to that approach in child welfare: it is quite expensive and can take a long time to complete, and in some cases it is ethically hard to rationalize (denying kids and families support for comparative purposes).
That is why some research experts have pushed for greater use of quasi-experimental design studies that use administrative data to assess the impact of an intervention. Where RCT moves forward with the service, quasi-experimental tests look backward using what has already been collected.
Mark Testa, a veteran child welfare researcher, penned an op-ed for The Imprint back in 2018 that foretold this issue. From his piece:
By automating the unbiased allocation of children, families or providers to intervention and comparison groups, it is possible to generate credible evidence of the comparative effectiveness of an intervention compared to usual or alternative services.
By tracking the desired outcomes with existing administrative data, it is practicable to ramp up the testing of promising interventions at low cost to determine what works better, for whom, and under what conditions.
This planned study could perhaps be a first step on the path to the executive branch investing in helping states quash barriers to connecting child welfare systems to a broader range of data elements. Surely, one issue they will run into are real and perceived problems with privacy rules.
As mentioned, the Family First Act requires that programs attain a certain level of evidence before they can be included, and there is some frustration with how few options have been added thus far by the federal clearinghouse. Easing the quasi-experimental process could help move more interventions toward possible approval.
Also, President Biden’s most recent budget request included a proposal to allow states to allocate 15% of its federal foster care prevention spending to programs that are not already cleared for Family First, with the caveat that states would have to contribute to the knowledge base on those services. This is certainly more difficult to do when serious barriers exist to accessing data linked to kids and families.