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March 2010Vol. 11, No. 2A Decade of Technology in Child Welfare

By Lynda Arnold, Director, National Resource Center for Child Welfare Data and Technology

In 2000, the first statewide automated child welfare systems (SACWIS) had been in place for a short period of time. It was also the first year of operation of a Children's Bureau resource center dedicated to assisting States with data and technology issues. It was the beginning of a huge cultural shift  in the way child welfare did business—from paper and pencil, volumes of files, desk cards, dictation, and "hand counts" to workers' inputting the information directly into a case management system. This gave workers immediate access to information, including case assignments, pending and completed services, and the entire child/family record.

A major challenge was resistance from the workforce. Many staff had never turned on a computer, much less used one for work. Supervisors had the challenge of convincing their workforce to use this new technology and new way of doing business, even when they themselves often were hesitant and skeptical.

These first systems were generally client-server based and slow, which added to the resistance from the workforce. Today, systems are increasingly web-based, faster, and more dynamic and may be integrated or interfaced with other agency/court systems. Today's workforce uses the latest technologies in their personal life and expects no less in their professional life. Real-time data are available throughout the organization to plan, manage, and monitor practice, programs, and service delivery.

Child welfare has embraced many new technologies to improve services:

  • Cell phones have increased worker safety and given workers immediate access to supervision when in the field.
  • Distance-learning technologies have made training more accessible for the workforce and clients. 
  • Laptops and mobile devices make on-the-go case management possible.
  • Photolistings on websites have increased the options for finding families for children.
  • Geographic information systems (GIS) make instant mapping of client and foster parents possible and facilitate making placements close to the child’s own neighborhood and school. They may also be used for targeted recruitment efforts.
  • Global positioning systems (GPS) are improving efficiency in transportation. As networks grow, this technology has implications for worker and children’s safety.

Some of the most exciting new technologies are the ones defined under web 2.0—interactive  technologies such as Facebook. As States implement the National Youth in Transition Database (NYTD), keeping in touch with youth can be significantly enhanced by using networks such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, foursquare, and ooVoo to connect with youth in their own language. 

We’ve come a long way in 10 years. Technology provides better accessibility and quality of services to clients, improved safety for workers and children, efficiencies in doing the work, and quality data for decision-making throughout the organization. However, no technology can take the place of skilled, experienced, and knowledgeable social workers who engage the families and youth with whom they work to achieve safety, permanency, and well-being.

For information about the National Resource Center for Child Welfare Data and Technology, visit the website:

Related Item

AdoptUsKids' National Photolisting

One of the most innovative and effective uses of new technology in child welfare over the last 10 years was the launch of AdoptUsKids' national photolisting of children awaiting adoption. The website debuted on July 23, 2002. In a press release issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on that date, then-Secretary Tommy G. Thompson lauded the site, saying, "This site is an example of using technology for a very compassionate purpose—linking families with waiting children."

In 1996, as part of the Adoption 2002 initiative, President Clinton had set a goal of doubling the number of adoptions and other permanent placements from the public child welfare system by 2002. To help reach that goal, in November 1998, the President directed HHS to expand the use of the Internet as a tool to link children in foster care more quickly with possible adoptive families.

Since its debut, almost 12,000 children appearing in the AdoptUsKids photolisting have found families.