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How Google AI Hopes to Improve Youth Support in Illinois

Illinois has partnered with Google to launch a groundbreaking portal, aiming to streamline access to youth mental health services and break down agency silos. A project leader shared with Government Technology what they’ve learned in the process.

A person holding another person's hands in a comforting gesture.
At the start of 2024, Illinois announced it would be partnering with Google Public Sector to use cloud computing and advanced artificial intelligence to create a centralized portal that overcomes silos to help agencies get children into behavioral and mental health services.

A phased rollout is set to begin by the end of July, initially granting access to a select group of users. With promising progress, the portal could be available to parents by the end of the year.

Development of the tool is a direct response to Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s Children’s Behavioral Health Transformation Initiative, established to address the alarming rise in youth mental health challenges in the state. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 61.8 percent of Illinoisans aged 12 to 17 who have depression did not receive any care in 2021. Meanwhile, 7 in 10 youth in the juvenile justice system had a mental health condition.

“Youth mental health problems were on the rise prior to the pandemic, but they were exacerbated by the isolation and stress and uncertainty of the pandemic and compounded by a workforce shortage that reduced our capacity to meet the needs of these young people,” said Director of Children’s Behavioral Health Transformation Dana Weiner.

Weiner added that the fragmented nature of the state’s resources could create further roadblocks.

“We’ve had in the past a somewhat siloed system where we have six state agencies that all offer programs and services to young people with mental and behavioral health needs, but they don’t tend to work together. That created a big set of problems for the families who are seeking to find mental health resources for their kids,” she said.

The new BEACON portal aims to resolve this by consolidating information and services across agencies, including the departments of Human Services, Healthcare and Family Services, Children and Family Services, Juvenile Justice, Public Health and the Illinois State Board of Education.

Prior to developing BEACON, initiative leaders worked with a group of representatives from each of the child-serving agencies to work on expediting placements and services for the kids with the most complex needs. This ongoing effort, launched in 2022, has already tackled roughly 400 cases.

“We learned a lot by working together on those cases, to understand what the barriers were that we need to overcome,” Weiner said, adding that the BEACON tool will be first released to that group of agency representatives who have been using a rudimentary care portal with the help of IT from the Department of Human Services.

This team will transition their case management to the new platform, marking the first phase of the rollout. The second phase will extend access to all system partners, such as service providers, hospitals, judges, probation officers and school personnel. Finally, the portal will be made available to the public, including families.

Weiner described the BEACON development process as a “wonderful partnership with Google” but emphasized a key takeaway: The importance of incorporating consumer feedback from the very beginning.

“We’ve included parents in the planning for this system, which resulted in some modifications to what our vision was to include functionality that parents told us would really help them overcome the challenges to accessing services,” she said.

One of those adjustments was incorporating a document upload feature within the portal. Users can now store important documents like individualized education plans or psychological evaluations in a central location, accessible to all relevant parties.

Weiner noted that one of the big struggles in getting different agencies to work together is legal prohibitions about what information can be shared. Instead of pursuing a complex data-sharing agreement, the BEACON portal introduces a user-friendly consent form. It was created to empower parents or guardians to authorize the sharing of data between agencies on a case-by-case basis.

“That has been a major breakthrough in overcoming the legal barrier to interagency collaboration,” she said.

According to Weiner, the role of artificial intelligence in the BEACON portal is minimal, limited to an algorithm that lets users know what services a young person is eligible for through automation.

“It does leverage powerful technology to speed the process of figuring out what someone’s eligible for,” she said. “Google has no access to the information that people are entering, it’s going into a secure, encrypted cloud-based platform.”

The algorithm, based on a fixed set of rules rather than generative AI, simplifies the process for parents and guardians. Weiner illustrated this with an example: “If you have a 15-year-old child with anxiety, substance abuse and Medicaid, who also has a developmental disability, the algorithm instantly identifies potential eligibility for specific programs.”

As the portal nears its launch, leaders anticipate that automation will alleviate the workload for navigators, the specialists who offer personalized assistance. This shift will allow navigators to focus on providing tailored support to families with complex needs.

Weiner is optimistic about BEACON’s potential to create lasting change.

“My hope is that once it’s fully implemented, parents will have a lot less stress and more clarity about how to get services for their kids,” she said. “There will be shorter times until kids can get services so we’ll be able to intervene earlier, and we’ll see, I hope, fewer acute crises because we’ll be getting kids less intensive services earlier on.”
Nikki Davidson is a data reporter for Government Technology. She’s covered government and technology news as a video, newspaper, magazine and digital journalist for media outlets across the country. She’s based in Monterey, Calif.