Fostering Responsible Tech Use

Balancing the Benefits and Risks Among Public Child Welfare Agencies

Across the country, child welfare agencies work with over 390,000 youth in foster care each year by temporarily placing them in foster homes, facilitating adoption if parental rights are terminated, and managing their cases. These agencies are tasked with the high-stakes responsibility of ensuring the safety and wellbeing of youth in their care, but face many challenges, such as lack of coordination across agencies that work with foster youth, insufficient or biased data about a child’s environment, and heavy administrative burdens that contribute to high rates of social worker turnover.

To address these issues, child welfare agencies are using, or considering, data and technology systems including artificial intelligence (AI) tools. However, despite the promises that data and technology provide, these systems risk entrenching racial and socioeconomic disparities, stigmatizing foster youth based on social and academic achievement, and compromising the privacy and security of personal data.

This report highlights the ways that data and technology can mitigate some of the problems that child welfare agencies face, while also recognizing their inherent risks. The Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) offers recommendations to maximize benefits and mitigate the harms, including engaging affected stakeholders, prioritizing data privacy and security, utilizing federal resources for data sharing, and safely implementing AI tools with responsible governance practices. Though these recommendations pertain to all data and technology uses, they are especially important as more and more public agencies are looking to take advantage of AI-powered tools.

How Data and Technology Can Help Child Welfare Agencies Better Serve Foster Youth

Child welfare agencies can utilize data and technology to increase positive outcomes for youth in foster care through steps such as enabling better coordinated care, promoting timely and appropriate class enrollment, reducing caseworker burden, and assisting and expediting caseworker decision making.

Data Sharing and Portability Can Lead to Better Coordinated Care

Foster youth disproportionately face negative health outcomes due to their environments. About half of youth in foster care have chronic physical conditions – almost 10 percent are labeled medically fragile/complex, many have a history of prenatal substance exposure, and many are born prematurely. As a result, youth in foster care often require specific, consistent medical care even as they change homes.

Inter-agency data sharing and portability can support youth in foster care who have complex physical and psychological health issues – but agencies lack the coordination and proper infrastructure to share and maintain child data. In many states, each locality may have different systems that are not interoperable. Because of this, health care providers often do not know whether a given patient is in the foster care system, and thus do not know to ask for historical information that might be collected and maintained by child welfare agencies and/or their partners.

Another context in which this issue arises is in schools. As discussed in the next section, youth in foster care switch schools more frequently than their peers. Some of their vital education records can be delayed or inconsistent, including records of previous educational progress and requirements for specialized education plans or other health related accommodations. Numerous federal statutes govern school data collection and sharing for both child welfare agencies and school districts. In some ways, these laws have improved data available on youth in foster care; but due to a lack of infrastructure, lack of enforcement, or lack of funding, this data is not being used to its fullest potential.

One example of a solution to this issue is automated, secure data sharing between state child welfare agencies and Medicaid, which covers over 99 percent of foster youth. Improved coordination allows caseworkers and foster homes to have access to necessary information, even as the children they work with/care for change locations. The Administration for Children and Families (ACF) and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) even offer a technical guide for states to follow to ensure efficient data sharing between these agencies.


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