Can a simple map change a child's life for the better?
Brian Cox thinks so. As a coordinator for Washington state's Division of Children and Family Services, he's using off-the-shelf mapping software to draw volunteers into the foster care system by showing them the number of children forced to leave their neighborhoods each year in search of foster homes.
"When people see these maps, they are extremely excited, extremely receptive," Cox said. "They want to know what they can do."
Each year in the United States, some 800,000 children spend time in foster care, yet the number of available homes continues to decline, according to The Market for Foster Care: An Empirical Study of the Impact of Foster Care Subsidies, published in March 2007. The study also notes that between 1984 and 1990, the number of nonrelative foster families declined from 147,000 to 100,000.
Volunteer foster parents are in short supply for several reasons. People don't want to take on the burden of a child from a troubled home. They're nervous about the expense (though the state does provide a stipend) and they're concerned about disruptions to their own home lives.
As a result, the system has many more kids to place in homes than foster parents willing to volunteer. An estimated 10,000 children each year are removed from their own homes because of child abuse and neglect and put into the custody of Washington's Division of Children and Family Services. Yet the state licenses only 5,326 foster homes, Cox said.
The state is under legal obligation to close the gap. As the result of a class-action lawsuit, the 2004 Braam settlement agreement obligated the state to make improvements to its foster care system.
Part of the problem may be geographic. As with so many social ills, the needs of foster kids always seem to be "over there," in another part of town and not in ours. Nor do people understand the degree to which foster kids are pulled from their native neighborhoods - away from school and friends - just because the nearest volunteer family is three towns away.
That's where inexpensive, off-the-shelf software can help, Cox said.
Mapping the Situation
In late 2005, Cox began experimenting with Microsoft Streets & Trips (MST), a commercially available mapping application that sells for about $150 a copy. His idea was to produce a graphic illustration of movements within the foster care system: where kids came from and where they were ending up. People who saw an exodus of kids from their own neighborhoods would presumably step up to halt the flow.
Early returns suggest the theory may prove useful. In a cluster of small neighborhoods known as the Barge-Lincoln Elementary School boundary area, the number of foster homes rose from four to 12 during a five-month trial of MST.
Though the sample is small, this is still a 200 percent increase in just five months. The difference between having four and 12 foster homes available in a small community (a few neighborhoods totaling 100,000 people) is, in fact, pretty dramatic. That's at least eight more kids, maybe more, who can stay local, just in the one neighborhood.
Gathering information to populate the maps isn't too difficult. State social service coordinators already gather a wealth of data on foster kids and store it in Microsoft Excel. "Every single entry by every social worker statewide, all of that will be represented in the system - every child they have entered," Cox said.
MST has a built-in interface with Microsoft's Excel database software, "So if we have addresses [in Excel] for all the children abused and neglected, we can migrate all of those names and map them almost instantly in Streets and Trips," Cox said.
To make the most of the Excel-MST connection,
IT managers rely on pivot tables, a powerful yet often overlooked function in Excel. Pivot tables summarize long lists of data without requiring the user to write formulas or copy cells. The tool allows a user to sift data by age, location, ethnicity and other variables easily.
In this way, IT staffers are turning out new data sets every 10 days, which social service workers at ground level can then apply to MST to generate maps as needed. Right now, nearly 30 of the state's 43 social service agencies are running MST. The system continues to roll out statewide, Cox said.
This isn't the first time mapping applications have been used to improve efficiencies within a social service program.
Take the example of food stamps in Mississippi. In 2005, the Mississippi Department of Human Services announced it would implement a GIS program to curtail fraud, the idea being to track the distances customers traveled in order to use their EBT cards.
In California, the Department of Social Services teamed with the nonprofit Stuart Foundation to chart data about children in the state's Child Welfare System. The database calculates outcome measures, including such line-items as maltreatment in foster care homes and time to reunification with family.
The system also generates maps indicating the distances between removals and placements of foster kids throughout the state. To do this, it relies on an in-house GIS along with other technologies.
Those familiar with such efforts say there are pros and cons, the cons being mostly cost. GIS packages can easily run millions of dollars, said Daniel Webster, a research specialist in the Child Welfare Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
In addition to the cost, GIS systems are often complex, requiring a certain level of technical sophistication. "So there are finance and technical barriers that keep a lot of people from using it," Webster said.
Washington's use of MST, on the other hand, delivers readily accessible technology: an application that is both affordable and easy to use for the program coordinators who generate maps at the local level.
"A lot of the more sophisticated packages will have more powerful features, more powerful analysis tools, but they don't need that type of special analysis capability [in the foster care system]. They just need to be able to make maps," Webster said.
Perhaps equally important is that the off-the-shelf program was designed with the visual element in mind. MST meets the user at the graphical level, with all the charts and data left to run behind the scenes. "People don't go into human services because they are comfortable with anything that has to do with tables and numbers," Webster said.
It's just the opposite, in fact. "They come in because they want to help people," he said. "They don't want to deal with math or statistics."
Facts on the Ground
Now people can see graphic evidence of kids leaving their neighborhoods as they travel through the foster care system. Will the locals therefore volunteer their homes as foster way stations? Those who work at the community level say it could very well happen.
Some say the system could serve to focus caseworkers' attention on the geographic aspect of placement. While geographic data has been available before, "It's not the kind of thing where I can just get it in five minutes," said Jill Kinney, a regional coordinator in Washington's Family to Family program, a local child-welfare initiative.
Foster care needs "tend to cluster, and they don't always cluster where the staff would predict," she said. By highlighting problem areas, MST maps could help caseworkers pinpoint their efforts and work more efficiently.
At the community level, social service organizers say they have been impressed by
what they've seen of MST, especially in its ability to make geographic issues come alive.
The Southeast Yakima Community Center serves a black community adjacent to a Hispanic community. Director Ester Huey says she sees it all the time: local kids placed into foster homes in distant towns.
"But until I saw that map, I didn't realize the breadth of the problem," she said. "You can talk to people about an issue, concern or problem, and they just don't seem to grasp it the way they do when they have a graphic in front of them."
Huey suggested MST maps could generate a new understanding, and perhaps a new willingness to help.
"When you can see that a child was taken from this particular home and placed 30 or 40 miles away, when you see all these children streaming out of the community, then you begin to understand how they become high-risk children, because the separation for them is total," she said. "We want to develop foster homes in this town, to keep those children in an area where they are familiar with their church, their school, their neighbors."
Some are concerned about the mapping idea, suggesting the visual element might prove too stark for some observers.
"It might cause some problems," said Karen Jorgenson, executive director of the National Foster Parent Association, based in Gig Harbor, Wash."If people saw that everyone was coming from one neighborhood, it could put them off at first. It might say to them: 'Hey, this is in your neighborhood,' and perhaps make them defensive rather than eager."
On balance, though, Jorgenson is optimistic about the mapping program. "We have been trying very diligently over the past several years to keep kids in their neighborhoods, to make sure they don't have to change schools," she said. "This sounds like something that would be very useful."
Cox, meanwhile, thinks these maps could change the face of social service.
For years, he says, the public has relied on paid professionals to take care of abused and neglected children. By putting geographic facts on the table, the social service world has a chance to convert the public at-large into active participants in the endeavor to care for those in need.
"We want to give them regular data on the children that come from their own communities, because the children belong to them. They belong to that community," he said.
A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.