Child Welfare

Child Welfare

An Ohio county adopts a database application that lets its social workers focus on kids, not programming

BY TRUDY WALSH | GCN STAFF

The Human Services Department in Hamilton County, Ohio, has plenty to keep it busy: tracking child abuse and neglect cases, child support and enforcement and welfare benefits. That doesn't leave employees a lot of time to learn fancy code or programming tricks.

'Our philosophy is that staff should know how to do social work, not sophisticated database queries,' said Roger Ward, manager of decision support and research for the Human Services Department.

Two and a half years ago, the department began using Cognos business intelligence software from Cognos Corp. of Burlington, Mass., to track both employee performance and child welfare cases.

How am I doing?

The county tracks staff performance in a series of work measurements. One of these standards is work participation rate, a measure of how well caseworkers and their supervisors are doing. According to Ward, families that receive Temporary Assistance to Needy Families benefits are required to show some level of employment for the department to receive incentive funding from Washington. The higher the level of work participation, the more funding the department gets.


Creating images from data is the key to business intelligence software from Cognos Corp. that Hamilton County, Ohio, Human Services Department supervisors use to track employee performance and the status of foster children.
The department's work participation rate had been abnormally low for several months, Ward said. After Ward and his team installed Cognos software, officials could drill down through a series of databases, pinpoint each supervisor's performance and put that information into an easy-to-read graph.

Sure enough, the software revealed that a few supervisors' low work participation rates were pulling down the department's average.

The department knew what actions to take to improve performance. 'The supervisors who were doing well could transfer their knowledge and best practices to the ones who weren't doing so well,' Ward said. They did this through a series of meetings and changes in policy.

As a result of these efforts, the department got millions of dollars in increased funding from the federal government, Ward said.

Cognos is written in C and Java, and the Human Services Department runs it under Microsoft Windows 95 on Pentium desktop PCs.

Although Cognos offers a Web-enabled version of its business intelligence software, Ward's department bought the client-server version. 'When we bought the software, the Web was fairly new,' Ward said. 'We didn't feel like being beta testers.'

Ward and his staff like the fact that the business intelligence software is 'not a memory hog. It works really well on a small machine.'

An old standard

Most of the data is updated monthly, but a few measures are updated weekly, Ward said. The system stores data in several databases, Ward said, including an old dBase database and as Microsoft Excel files.

The department also uses the Cognos software to monitor children in foster care. The software's geographic information system component can help send warning signals to case supervisors quickly, Ward said.

For example, the software measures how long each child has been in foster care, and the number of times he or she has lived in different homes, Ward said. If a child has been in foster care less than five months but has had several moves, that's a red flag, Ward said, an indicator that something in the child's care is amiss.

'What's nice is that the software allows for speedy decisions,' Ward said. 'We don't have to wait around for a big three-ring binder report.'

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