With the availability of new hardware, two apps and a portal, Washington state’s child welfare agency hopes to use mobile technology to enhance security and productivity in a sector where the privacy of client data and the availability of social workers are crucial.

In a series of rollouts and launches spanning the past 12 months, the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) Children’s Administration — which oversees child safety and protection, foster parenting and adoption — has made a variety of mobile options available to its roughly 2,800 total employees and to authorized members of around 5,000 licensed foster homes.

After a pilot, Children’s Administration Technology Services (CATS) made 2,000 iPhones and Dell Venue tablets available to employees in June and July of 2016, and adopted an IBM mobility management product to “secure and control it all.”

Later in the year, CATS issued an RFP, ultimately selecting Deloitte Consulting to help it design two privately available mobile apps for Apple and Android devices. The first, MyCases, became available to employees in November and December; the second, OurKids, became available to foster parents in May. The portal launched in early May.

Michael Smith, who became director of technology services for the Children’s Administration in March 2014, told Government Technology he had “inherited” a legacy Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System (SACWIS) the department still uses, “but quickly realized after doing ride-alongs with workers in the field, the need for mobility.”

“I recognized early on that social workers as well as foster parents had the need to access the same or like-kind information about the kids in their care,” said Smith, who spearheaded the move to mobile but is now an IT security consultant in the state’s Economic Services Administration.

CATS kept SACWIS, but virtualized all infrastructure and migrated it in-house. Staffers drew inspiration by attending 2016's First Ever White House Foster Care & Technology Hackathon. They partnered with Deloitte using agile collaboration techniques to design the two apps around similar needs for employees and foster family members.

Benush Venugopal, a principal at Deloitte, praised the state for taking child welfare employees mobile “so they can engage more effectively with the families that they serve”; and CATS staffers for working “agile” with his company — chunking larger problems into smaller, “bite-size” problems capable of being solved in two weeks.

But the larger accomplishment, he said, lies in the scalability of the technology.

“I’m not aware of any other states that have developed such child welfare apps at the state level. In that regard, Washington state is a leader,” Venugopal said.

Employees who still used pen and paper to take field notes, then drove to the office to type them into state computers, urgently needed to be able to access information during visits and on the job as well as upload notes, photographs and even digital recordings into their case notes.

Now, they have “at their fingertips” the kind of critical data “that supports safety decision-making,” Norah West, DSHS media relations manager said via email, including intake histories related to abuse or neglect, any case actions and activities.

They’re notified via mobile of pending assignments; and can upload notes, photographs and recordings through a single device, or leave notes in draft format and return later to finalize them.

“This means information is entered in a timely fashion and workers can be more efficient with their down time while waiting for court hearings or for visitations to end,” West told said, noting that supervisors have access to information too.

OurKids users, around 245 so far according to West, wanted constant access to information on their young charges. Like MyCases, OurKids offers demographic, education, legal and medical information as well as access to authorized and paid services and social worker contact information.

MyCases use rates are slightly lower, with around 200 workers per day logging in — numbers Smith said are depressed because use is optional, it hasn’t been “well marketed,” and training hasn’t been offered. He’d like to see the number of daily log-ins up around 1,000, he added.

But the former CATS director said he thinks there’s still a compelling use case to be made for MyCases saving employees around one hour, 38 minutes each work day — time they would otherwise have spent doing their job traditionally.

Smith hopes a Deloitte time and motion study halted for scrutiny by an employee union will ultimately confirm that employees really are saving that much time.

“My goal was to save 20 percent of a social worker’s day. That’s really what it’s all about. It’s not about new cool cloud and mobile technology. It’s really about ‘Let’s help these kids and families and let’s get the social workers back to doing social work,” he said.

“It seems achievable, a realistic and certainly a hoped-for outcome,” West said. “Staff are so happy to be able to access that information and do work from the field."