Putting People Front and Center in Michigan

The state’s Children’s Services Agency is overhauling its outdated software system, Jeremy Gantz reports—and the effort promises to free up valuable staff time, allowing employees to spend more time in the field.

When JooYeun Chang decided to move to Michigan last year to take the helm of the state’s Children’s Services Agency, she had a new policy approach in mind. 

The Family First Prevention Services Act, which became federal law in 2018, incentivizes states to prevent child abuse and neglect, and to avoid group and institutional care as much as possible in favor of parents and relatives. It’s sparking a national shift in child welfare systems toward trauma prevention—a shift Chang is excited to help lead as senior deputy director at the agency. Part of the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services (MDHHS), Children’s Services manages protective and adoption services throughout the state, along with its foster care system and juvenile justice programs.

“We have been a system that waited until problems reached a point of crisis until we were willing to intervene,” Chang says. The new federal policy, however, encourages states to think about their systems differently. At MDHHS, it opened the door for new thinking on how case workers spend their time—and it’s helping to drive a long-needed overhaul of the software system they rely on.

“In Michigan, there’s been a fortuitous convergence of technology that is by design more efficient and accessible, and a vision to update policy and practice so that we are able to do a better job keeping children safe—whether that is at home or in foster care.” Chang notes. “We have a clear recognition that technology is an important tool to realize our new vision.”

Part of that vision? Empowering MDHHS staff to be out in the field investigating allegations of abuse and neglect and supporting foster care families. Right now, frontline state employees spend 70 to 90 percent of their time on average sitting in front of a computer, inputting data on child welfare cases and foster care families into an unwieldy, inefficient child welfare information system.

The reason for this is compliance. Per a federal consent decree introduced more than a decade ago, child welfare staff must provide an array of data to federal court monitors overseeing Michigan’s child welfare system. In fact, an entire software system was built around the agency’s reporting requirements: the Michigan Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System (MiSACWIS), which launched in 2014 and has proven as unwieldy as its acronym. No one has affection for the system, despite a total state and federal investment of $231 million. Last year, a court-ordered review of the software recommended abandoning it entirely.

“The reality is that the workforce spends a majority of their time in front of a computer instead of with families,” Chang says. “Sometimes staff is so overwhelmed they feel they have to make a choice between inputting data or going outside and seeing families.”

Change is on the horizon, however—and Chang and her agency hope it’s dramatic. They’re pushing forward with a complete overhaul of MiSACWIS built around human-centered design principles and deep stakeholder outreach, with an ultimate aim of meeting the agency’s consent decree reporting requirements while better serving Michiganders and achieving the trauma prevention policy goal.

Buoyed by strong executive support from MDHHS Director Robert Gordon, who was appointed to his role by newly inaugurated Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in January 2019, the Children’s Services Agency is “using this tech build to really push ourselves,” Chang asserts. 

“We must build a human-centered system,” she says. “[The fundamental opportunity is] to make families more safe and whole. We know tech is an important tool in our tool belt.”

From pain points to performance tracking

Zoe Lyons, director of MDHHS’ Jackson County office, sees big opportunities for improvement. Right now, she says, MiSACWIS is a hindrance, not a help. Her office’s 42 protective services staff and 17 foster care workers spend an inordinate amount of time inputting data, often re-entering the same data in multiple places.

“It was designed to get as much information into it as we could possibly enter,” Lyons says. “There didn’t seem to be a balance of doing that with all the other field tasks that staff have to do. It’s frustrating.”

Other specific pain points in the system include an inability to go back and correct data entered earlier in a report—allowing incorrect data to linger. More broadly, there’s a lack of performance tracking: The current system doesn’t illuminate whether one foster care family is more successful at keeping children out of services than another, for instance, and it cannot indicate if a family had a previously substantiated abuse or neglect claim.

“We have no way of tracking if a family used our services and then later came back to our attention,” Chang notes. “We need the ability to track child outcomes … and to do the kind of data analysis so we can be nimble and innovative in our response.”

The new system, she says, should be easier to use and offer more reliable data that supports performance tracking. It should be able to communicate with other state government systems in Michigan, including Medicaid, cash assistance programs, and schools. Finally, it should reflect the needs of all end users—not just federal court monitors, but MDHHS staff and the children and families they serve.

Listen closely, then take one phase at a time

Last fall, MDHHS kicked off its research and design process. It held three town hall events across the state, offering various stakeholders outside government—including foster families, relative caregivers, and youth community leaders—the opportunity to offer insights. The process allowed the department to learn about existing barriers to families becoming licensed foster parents, including the onerous paper process—which Chang wants to jettison in favor of a digital application built into the newly designed software system.

Lyons and other MDHHS county office directors have also been participating in the design process. Chang has held meetings with them, along with private agencies that handle some foster care cases on behalf of the state, to introduce the process.

The design process will involve “really hard looks at what will work best both for frontline workers and the families we work with,” Lyons says. “Getting the feedback from people who are living the problem really is key to getting the best outcomes for everyone.”

In December, MDHHS issued its first request for proposal to begin replacing MiSACWIS. For the first time, the Children’s Services Agency will be executing an IT project through a modular and cloud-based approach. The project, which could take three to five years to complete, will be split into phases, with each delivering one software module; the new system’s tech foundation will be provided and maintained by an outside company to increase reliability. The first phase, which will focus on foster home licensing functionality, is scheduled for completion in late 2020. The rest of the system will continue to function as is, as new modules come online.

A phase one vendor should be chosen within “the next few months,” Chang says. Moving forward at that point will be contingent on securing funds via the 2021 state budget recommendation from Gov. Whitmer, which the legislature will likely approve by the end of summer.

A shift in mindset

MDHHS is no stranger to human-centered design. In 2015, the department hired Detroit design firm Civilla to redesign the state’s notorious 45-page, 1,000-question-long public benefits assistance application form, which required information such as the exact date a child was conceived. The streamlined application, unveiled in 2018, was a new form based on end user needs, rather than government systems—just 18 pages and 213 questions long. Form completion rates jumped from 72 percent to 94 percent soon after. 

That case serves as one reason Chang is confident her agency’s child welfare software system can be successfully overhauled. The key, however, is keeping sight of the ultimate goal: allowing staff to spend more time investigating potentially abused or neglected children, and gaining the trust of at-risk families to prevent issues from escalating into a crisis.

“Our workforce is our greatest intervention,” Chang says. “So our workforce has to be empowered to do a really tough job.”