UChicago (Image By Rdsmith4 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Center for State Child Welfare Data

The Center for State Child Welfare Data provides a data sharing and analysis environment tied to child welfare data from 22 states covering approximately 70% of the children in state custody. It is a membership-based network which enables public sector agencies to access data securely and use it for analyses that support service improvements that target children placed away from their parents.

Location: Chicago, Illinois


The Center for State Child Welfare Data at the University of Chicago was established in 2004 to improve access to and use of longitudinally organized service records pertaining to the experiences of children placed in foster care. With these data, pub

lic agencies are able to undertake state of the art analyses covering a range of topics fundamental to operating a strong child welfare system. With tools developed at the Data Center, as it is popularly known, the team promotes the use of evidence-based decision making in government agencies by equipping them with the infrastructure and tools required to assess the effectiveness of existing programs and to inform the design and funding of future programs.

Broadly, membership in the Data Center offers three major benefits¹: 1) access to a secure, longitudinal database of the state’s administrative data, 2) a web tool to that supports access to the data needed to generate the evidence needed to support strong foster care programs, and 3) training and technical assistance network that promotes the use of evidence in decision-making contexts.

The cornerstone of the Data Center’s offerings is the Foster Care Data Archive and associated web tool. By accessing the longitudinal data, the web tool allows member states to deepen their understanding of how children experience foster care: how long do they stay, how often do they change placement, how likely are they to be reunified or adopted, how likely are they to return to care having been discharged. The web tool also allows users to understand differential risk: do some children tend to stay longer; are children in one area of the state more likely to return to care; has time in care been going up or down. Administrators, policy makers, and practitioners need answers to these fundamental questions when trying to build a stronger system.

Another important facet of the Data Center’s work, according to Professor Fred Wulczyn, Senior Research Fellow, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, is its focus on the human capital needed to promote evidence-based decision-making². Although the tool creates the opportunity to add evidence to decision making processes, it does not, by itself, generate the motivation and capability needed to generate decision-relevant evidence. For that reason, the Data Center’s training focuses on the use of research evidence: how is research evidence generated from data resources maintained by the Center; how is research evidence processed for meaning in an improvement cycle; and, how is evidence applied to decisions in policy and practice settings.

Sector: Child Welfare

Target Audience: Child welfare agencies at state and local levels as well as social sector agencies (i.e., private providers of foster care) and stakeholders broadly speaking.

Services offered: Data Integration, data access through web-enabled tools, and training.

Data Sources: Administrative data regarding foster children from 22 state and county public child welfare agencies (i.e., the member agencies). On a more limited basis, the Center also maintains child abuse and neglect data, data about foster parents, data about social sector foster care agencies, data about the use of time on the part of caseworkers, and financial data related to the cost of operating child welfare systems.

Addressing Data Quality Issues: For almost 35 years now, Professor Fred Wulczyn and his team at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago have worked with states to help them build what he calls “research-valuable data” from the administrative records they maintain for other purposes. By harmonizing the data across jurisdictions (states and counties), the Archive makes comparative, between- and within-state research possible. The harmonization strategies resolve the challenge of mixing data collected from different state agencies operating under different policy guidelines into a coherent, integrated framework.

The Data Center’s role³ is to take these research-valuable datasets and convert them into a form that fits a variety of applications within the evidence use paradigm. Record linkage between states, over time, and across agencies are an important outgrowth of the Center’s work. Use of the data by states is diverse. Because the data are stored in a longitudinal, multilevel structure multilevel policy research is possible. These same data can be used by states to generate the evidence needed to manage performance-based contracts. The data have also been used by the federal courts to resolve longstanding oversight of state child welfare agencies.

Methodology: The Data Center operates on a collaboration model. Every member state provides the administrative data it uses to track foster children. Data Center staff write programs to clean and integrate the data using specifically designed harmonization software. When the data are ready, the state gains access to two assets: 1) a harmonized set of its data organized with state-of-the-art longitudinal analysis in mind, and, 2) access to the web tool. The web tool supports two types of queries. Within state queries allow the users to understand core outcomes for the children served within state; the between state queries give states access to comparative aggregate data that is otherwise not available to them. Additionally, Data Center staff provides member states with training on how to use the web tool to generate evidence based on “methodologically sound analytical queries.”

Addressing data governance and oversight mechanisms: The Foster Care Data Archive has administrative records from 22 state agencies (accounting for nearly 70% of the current US foster care population). Oversight of the Center’s work is managed by an Advisory Group made up state and local representatives. Among other functions, the Advisory Group helps staff identify Center priorities.

The Archive does support comparative analysis but in doing so the boundaries between states are closely managed and monitored. Member states control password allocation for users at their discretion. Generally, authorized users are persons or organizations with the legal authority to view records. Within state, because the data may be used to support case-level decisions, legally authorized users have access to data with a unique identifier. Names are not included. This level of security is managed through user login and privileges assigned to users by state administrators (as opposed to Center staff). Each member state may share the curated version of their data (the version that the Data Center staff has cleaned), with anyone they would like, provided a formal request is made. For this type of access, data shared is free of unique identifiers. The Data Center takes other technical precautions⁴ to ensure data security. For instance, the Data Center only accepts data from states via SFTP (SSH File Transfer Protocol- a secure communication protocol) to the Data Center’s secure database or on tapes or DVDs. and the Data Center does not accept any data via email in order to ensure security.

Analytical support: The Data Center’s staff is focused first and foremost on maintaining the curated longitudinal database. The analysis of the data is managed in several ways: interactive queries using the web took, pre-formatted tables of aggregate data that are also available through the web tool, and specialized statistical analysis run using such software as SAS, SPSS, R, Stata, HLM, Supermix, and MPlus, depending on the complexity of the analysis being run.

Successes/ Impact: For nearly 25 years, the team assembled by Dr. Wulczyn has been building integrated, multistate data files that support policy and practice relevant research. In doing so, the Center’s work has been guided by two priorities: build data that supports research that is theoretically and methodologically rigorous and use that same data to tackle the very practical problems facing state child welfare agencies on a day-to-day basis. The Center’s longevity is an indicator of why these priorities retain their salience. On the methodological front, research done with the Center’s data has been at the forefront of research that is used to better understand such diverse topics as racial disparity, evaluation of treatment programs, implementation science, system science, and basic epidemiology. On the practical front, examples of the Center’s work are best seen in the work helping states redesign their foster care programs, with the work done in Tennessee, New York City, Texas, San Francisco County, Mississippi, Georgia, and Wisconsin as the leading examples.

Sample Project: In 2000, the state of Tennessee was sued by Children’s Rights, Inc. for its management of the foster care program. Pursuant to the settlement agreement, Data Center staff were asked to help the Department of Children’s Services build the infrastructure needed to monitor the experience of children investigated for child abuse and neglect and placed in foster care, if and when that was necessary. Over the ensuing 15 years, Center staff helped leadership in Tennessee build a reporting system that generates the evidence leadership needs to guide the agency with confidence. Contributions of the Center to the State’s efforts include ground-breaking work on racial disparity, fiscal reform, and oversight of the private sector. In July of 2017, Tennessee became one of the first states ever to exit from longstanding federal judicial oversight.

Distinguishing Characteristics: First assembled in the late 1980s, the Foster Care Data Archive is the nation’s oldest example of linked and integrated administrative data. Over the years, the data have been combined with health, school, mental health, TANF, court, birth, and juvenile justice records as well as census records. The FCDA maintains an unparalleled temporal and spatial structure that, when combined with modern statistical models, shows time and again why administrative records are important for research and the routine management of public programs. Moreover, with over 100 years of person experience working with federal, state, and local agencies, the Data Center team understands how to both use and build the skills needed to generate, acquire, interpret, and apply research evidence to public policy.

Funding sources: Membership fees and core support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Casey Family Programs.

Link to website: http://fcda.chapinhall.org

Contact details: Professor Fred Wulczyn (fwulczyn@uchicago.edu) and Lily Alpert (lalpert@chapinhall.org).

We’d like to thank Professor Fred Wulczyn, Senior Research Fellow, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago for his assistance


¹ ² ³ ⁴ Interview with Prof Fred Wulczyn, Senior Research Fellow, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago on July 5, 2017