As a military officer, I'm more than used to transitions, problem solving, and poor communications. But my recent experience with the communication provided to foster parents and children has been eye-opening – even to me.
Philadelphia is in the midst of a foster care crisis, fueled by the devastating impact of opioid addiction. In March, the city put out an urgent call for 300 more foster families. Compounding this crisis is the fact that caseworkers are often unable to gather or provide critical information about foster kids due to the overwhelming demands of the caseload and archaic pen-and-paper system.
Our family's first foster children were dropped off by a caseworker with a trash bag of possessions and no information about their case. In the last 18 months, it's been up to us to gather what medical data, allergy history, and trauma history we can. And our supporting case workers and attorneys change frequently, often within weeks or even days of assignment.
It was up to us to realize that our third foster child required emergency dental surgery – and has a deathly allergy to mushrooms. Luckily, she was old enough to tell us on her own, and I already had an EpiPen for my own bee-sting allergy, which we almost had to use on her on more than one occasion. With such high caseworker turnover, it's no wonder that critical information is missed.
Two core issues have left Philadelphia's foster care system even more unprepared for the current influx of children. The first challenge is a reliance on labor-intensive paper forms, burning time that our caseworkers don't have. Caseworkers are trying extraordinarily hard to keep our children safe, but with low pay, long hours and burdensome paperwork – it's no surprise that there is also extraordinarily high turnover.
With these two problems combined, we wind up with reports that are low-quality or never even filed. Support staff quit, and their reports are never finished. There is no central database to store information, and when cases change hands, the new worker is usually starting from scratch. And it's not the fault of the caseworkers. Our current caseworker, like so many, is an absolute treasure who always goes above and beyond. His workload has doubled in the last few months, requiring unbelievable hours and a sacrifice of time with his own family, including a foster child. One of the hardest parts of his job is identifying basic information that he should have the moment he received a case.
The lack of information is staggering. The devastating consequences are even more so.
When this missing data results in abuse by the foster parent or child, as we saw in cases represented by 2012 and 2015 lawsuits, foster care organizations are left scrambling for information they should already have.
The end result? Organizations that provide critical services, and struggle to obtain funding for daily operations, are losing sums that match their entire annual budgets to litigation for preventable negligence. In the lawsuits mentioned above, both settled for about $10 million.
Of course, there is no quick fix. But we can do far better at protecting our children, and the organizations that serve them.
We need to embrace the digital age, as the medical industry has done. The home health-care industry has a mandatory date of Jan. 1, 2019, for Electronic Visit Verification. We need a secure, HIPAA-complaint app for social and behavioral health workers to use on their visits. With drop-down boxes for form data, case workers can regain critical time and automatically upload key data to a secure cloud server, preventing data loss and ensuring access for each worker. And by adding Electronic Visit Verification GPS capability, the foster care system can verify and track home visits before such records become mandatory.
If we can save our caseworkers' time and provide more efficient ways to record and share data, our children will be better served and turnover may decline. The cost to develop this tool may be high – but the cost of missing key information and poorly servicing our children is infinitely higher.
It is far past time for organizations that care for our most vulnerable citizens take a proactive approach to caring for their information and support workers, as well.
Samuel Heidorn is a foster parent and a producer at Graham Co., one of the country's largest insurance brokers.