For the more than 400,000 children in foster care on any given day, the goal of the social workers entrusted with their care is simple: safety, permanency and well-being.1
But getting there is far from simple. Ideally, caseworkers would spend all of their work hours bonding with the children on their caseload and developing a deep knowledge of their needs and desires so they can find a permanent, safe situation in which the children can thrive.
In reality, according to a recent brief from the Child Welfare Information Gateway, workers tend to spend 60 to 70 percent of their work time on case-related activities, with only 20 to 35 percent in contact with children and families.
Today’s technology could shift that to enable more time spent with children and families. Using today’s digital engagement tools cannot only help workers easily document case activities and provide more time for real interaction with children, but they can help strengthen the relationship between worker and child. As an added bonus, these digital tools can provide a foster child with a visual roadmap of their life.
It can start with the first contact with a child. Young children have difficulty communicating and those who have been traumatized are even more likely to shut down when a new person, the social worker, shows up at their door. Imagine if that caseworker had a digital version of a trauma doll, could simply ask the child to look at a set of emojis, and point to the one that best represents their current mood, or point to a child-friendly “pain” scale that would visually represent their pain? Or, what if an app existed to allow a child to draw or color things that help communicate their feelings. “Please draw a picture of a house that is safe. Who is allowed in that house? Who isn’t allowed in? What are the rules of your house?” A traumatized child could simply push buttons or draw to get their point across. Even non-verbal children could communicate. And, in the case of the child who doesn’t speak English, a translation app could be added to allow for some limited communication before a translator is brought in.
All the while, these apps are capturing the child’s actions for the case record, cutting down the caseworker’s paperwork and providing more time for real interaction.
It’s not uncommon for today’s child welfare worker to have between 20 and 30 cases. Many of those cases will have multiple children. It’s a challenge for workers to just see children in the required time frames, let alone develop relationships through constant communication. Technology makes this more possible.
Imagine workers and children communicating through a desktop or a smart phone app that is simple and more secure than texting. With voice capabilities, even children who cannot read or write could click on a child-friendly icon and have ongoing dialogue with their caseworker. Meanwhile, the application is collecting and documenting the contact and content of the conversation for the case record – again helping workers with time-consuming tasks.
For those children who have had only dysfunctional relationships with adults, improved, easy communication helps develop trust and strengthen a healthy relationship and digital documentation helps them hold on to their history.
For children in many states, such as Ohio and Illinois, “life books” – enhanced scrap books that provide important details, memories and photos of their lives – are a requirement. Even where they are not required, they are considered good practice. These life books help fill in history that they never knew or have long forgotten.
Life books are much easier in the age of technology. Through a digital portal, workers, foster parents, therapists, family members and more could securely upload photos and other memories for the children. (Access and content to be approved by caseworkers.) The children themselves could upload pictures, creating galleries of their life without exhausting memory on a phone that they may or may not be able to keep.
Remember the yearly lines on the family home’s wall to show how children grow? That might be difficult for foster children moving from foster home to foster home. In the digital age, an app could prompt the foster child to periodically plug information into templates detailing their demographic information, along with content such as favorite band, favorite food, favorite sport and so on.
Birth certificates and other important documents also could be uploaded for future reference. Many adults have trouble tracking their important documents through life; imagine being a foster child who spends a dozen years in the system, hopping from placement to placement. This portal can be a one-stop shop for documenting the life of a child, maintaining a case record and helping the worker and child communicate.
The opportunities for digital engagement in today’s world are endless and the child welfare field should explore every possibility. In child welfare, technology can now replace paperwork with tools that make it easier to communicate with children, capturing key information needed to understand the situation and protect those at risk. Other digital tools can make it easier to create and maintain the life records so important to the care,
development and well-being of children.
When all of this happens, safety, permanency and well-being are a little closer.