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New Mexico Uses Startup to Modernize Foster Care Systems

Since its inception in 2017, California-based software company Binti has been attracting government clients to its SaaS model to replace decades-old custom solutions with a more mobile, automated workflow.

The state of New Mexico has replaced a decades-old child foster care file system with a digital workflow by Binti, a software company in Oakland, Calif.

Announced yesterday in a news release, the state’s new contract proposes to expedite and simplify the adoption process by allowing families to apply online, and by digitizing and partially automating the workflow for social workers. As part of the contract, nearby tribal nations will have access to the SaaS through their own independent child welfare systems, and the software is designed to help users comply with the Indian Child Welfare Act. Binti CEO Felicia Curcuru said the system went live on Monday.

Brian Blalock, the cabinet secretary for New Mexico’s Children, Youth and Families Department, told Government Technology that prior to this week, the state had been using a centralized database written more than 20 years ago in COBOL. He said it entailed different, fragmented builds for various categories of work — child welfare, juvenile justice, early childhood development, youth homelessness — and made remote access almost impossible.

When COVID-19 hit, Blalock said, New Mexico was already looking for a new system to do several things: offer a modern user-friendly interface that would help with recruiting, remove barriers in the adoption process, enable evaluation and greater transparency in the process and modernize the tools social workers have at their disposal.

“We have a younger and younger workforce, and when they look at our COBOL, it doesn’t even look like anything they recognize, and it certainly doesn’t help them,” he said.

But when the pandemic forced Blalock’s department to go from zero telework — actually having policies against it — to 80 percent telework in a matter of weeks, the need for a new system became even more obvious.

“It would be a lie if I said that workers were just as productive. They weren’t, because our technology couldn’t follow them,” he said. “This was where we needed to go, but it was made even more urgent by the pandemic.”

Three years after launching Binti and picking up customers in several California counties, Curcuru said New Mexico is the company’s second state contract, although it only covers a particular region at this point. The first was Rhode Island, signed last year. She said the company grew during several years of working with county-level social workers in California, shadowing and talking to them. She learned that many social workers spend half their time on administrative work, using 70-column Excel spreadsheets which they share among dozens of other social workers trying to track all families in the adoption process.

She also learned that there are seven distinct workflows in child welfare: approving families, matching families with children, answering calls from the child-abuse hotline, the team that investigates those calls, the team that helps biological families get on their feet to reconnect with their kids, the team that tries to find relatives and friends of family, and the team that oversees finances. And most states don’t have a user-friendly system for these teams to work together.

Curcuru said Binti is one system with different modules for these tasks, and two of them are now available, for family approval and for matching kids with families. A module for providing services to biological families is in a pilot stage, and modules for the other four tasks exist as prototypes that haven’t been deployed.

“There is software in this space. It’s just so antiquated that using a 70-column spreadsheet is better. Every state has a state child welfare database, mandated by the federal government, that has to include a bunch of information for compliance,” Curcuru said. “Most of them were built 10 or 20-plus years ago as custom-built consulting projects, and they really were built for compliance.”

What’s more, time is of the essence in foster care. According to the National Foster Youth Institute, more than 23,000 kids age out of the U.S. foster care system every year, and 20 percent of them — roughly 4,600 kids — become instantly homeless. Only half of kids who age out of foster care have gainful employment by age 24. So finding parents for foster kids before they age out is one of the goals, and numbers suggest Binti has made headway.

“We’ve been able to drive tangible outcomes, which I think is the reason for our growth,” Curcuru said. “In our approvals module, on average, agencies approved 80 percent more families in a year after working with us, compared to before, with no change in marketing or anything. And they approve them in 16 percent fewer days, so they’re approving more families more quickly.”

In 2017, Binti served 20 counties in California. Today that number has grown to 39 counties in California and more than 100 agencies in 15 states. It’s too early to say how Binti will pan out for New Mexico, but Blalock is optimistic. He said six people applied to the new digital foster care system within the first 24 hours, with no external outreach on the state’s part. He said the state chose Binti not only because it fit their criteria, but because word-of-mouth backed them up.

“When we reached out to folks … people liked (Binti), people liked their experience with it, people liked how quickly they got on board with it, and we heard lots of stories about how it helped change practice, and that’s what we need,” he said. “To go from a 23-year-old database to Binti is kind of ‘lightspeed ahead’ for us.”

Editor's note: The founding date of Binti and the wording used in a direct quote have been corrected.

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.