Every year thousands of children enter foster care because of abuse or neglect, parents who have died or been incarcerated, or other unfortunate circumstances. An increasing number of these children are avoiding foster care, however, because of technology and policy changes that are placing them with extended family members instead.
Overall, this is good news. But one group of children has lagged behind the rest: children whose extended families live in other countries. In a nation of immigrants, this is a large group. More than one in five children in the U.S. have at least one foreign-born parent. Many have family members living in other countries due to work, military service, education and retirement.
Maria (not her real name) was one these children. Just 16 years old, she entered state care because of an abusive father and mentally ill mother. Maria wanted to live with her grandparents in another country, but the state of New Jersey, where she lived, needed help. Fortunately, an international organization well-versed in cases like hers was able to conduct a home study and determine that her grandparents would make a good placement. Four months later, a New Jersey state case worker accompanied her to her grandparents’ home, where she is living today and doing well.
Such placements can seem daunting. But they are commonplace for the U.S. branch of International Social Service (ISS-USA), located in Baltimore, Maryland. The organization conducts home studies, criminal and sexual abuse background checks, and searches for family and documents in other countries to ensure that every placement is made in a child’s best interest.
ISS-USA is a relatively small organization, with an annual budget of $2 million, but it has made that budget go a long way because of a performance management system with humble origins. It began with a custom-built Microsoft Access database, supplemented with Excel. The system has evolved considerably since then. Today it helps ISS-USA track its outcomes and has helped it make a compelling case to federal and state agency funders about the cost-effectiveness of its work.
“In the beginning, when we first started collecting data, we were able to track the number of families and cases that we worked with, and which countries, but that was basically it,” said Julie Rosicky, the organization’s executive director. “We wanted more than that. We wanted to know that we were making a difference.”
This effort was complicated by the existence of several databases covering different aspects of the organization’s work, but none of which gave them exactly what they needed. In some cases, the data primarily covered compliance issues such as program eligibility, dollars spent, and whether the organization had fulfilled its responsibilities. In other cases, pulling out data on program outcomes was a nightmare. Such reporting could take hours or even days to complete.
“We have all these kids in care and the goal is to get them connected with families as quickly as possible,” said Wendy Jeffries, a program manager who oversees data for the organization. “We want them with their family members first. If not, we want to find foster or adoptive families. We want to avoid placement in institutions. If we can’t do that, we at least want to connect them to family. So we want to know, how successful are we? What happens to the kids?”
These are the kinds of questions the organization now answers routinely. In 2009, the organization won a demonstration grant from the state of New Jersey to provide international family finding for children at risk of being placed in foster care. Maria was one of those children.
In 2011 alone, the program served 186 children. After conducting home studies, 14 children were placed with family outside the U.S. and another 8 were placed with family members in the United States. With foster care placements costing $30,000 to $40,000 every year, the organization estimates that it saved the state of New Jersey $3-4 for every dollar spent on international family finding efforts. The state is now expanding what had been a demonstration program and making it permanent. Other states are looking to replicate New Jersey’s efforts.
“Really we need federal support for these costs, not 50 different states trying to fund and develop their own programs,” says Rosicky. But the trend is in the right direction.
In an era of tightening state budgets, few programs are being expanded. Tracking costs and outcomes is making this possible.
It has produced several lessons, too. The organization discovered that it could reduce training costs by creating a more targeted training program for a few select case workers and combining it with an overall awareness campaign.
It has also worked to simplify its data system, reduce time spent on data entry, and improve data quality. As part of this effort, it is migrating its old Access and Excel-based data system over to Social Solutions ETO™ software, a process that is expected to be completed in the next few weeks.
How do they pay for all this? The question of how to pay for performance management systems is a common one. In their case, the costs of the system are built into their grants.
“If people are seeking funding, I would advise them to factor that cost in,” says Rosicky. “It’s very important to have someone on staff designated to oversee the database activities. If funders want outcomes, they must also be willing to pay for staff to oversee data collection and outcome reporting. At least in the ideal world, anyway.”
Where do they go from here? The organization’s sights are not limited to New Jersey or even the United States. Not surprisingly, the organization’s goals are international in scope.
“Migration between countries in Europe is ten times what it is here,” says Rosicky. But the opportunity isn’t just about numbers.
“When we first designed our child welfare system here in the U.S., we weren’t thinking about how to measure success in a globalized society. In other countries, where they are new to this, we can get it right at the very beginning.”