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,