Exploring the Potential of “Big Data” to Integrate and Transform Child-Serving Systems: Research Examples and Practical Strategies for the Future
The needs of children and youth who come in contact with multiple child-serving systems (e.g., child welfare, behavioral health, public assistance, and juvenile justice) are complex. Youth with cross-system contact can indicate that the unmet needs in one system are related to involvement in another. Data from one system are often not enough to provide an accurate depiction of their experiences and outcomes. Technological advances in data collection, storage, and analyses have resulted in the proliferation of large, cross-system, administrative data. However, “big data” has its own advantages, disadvantages, and challenges (e.g., data-sharing agreements, agency relationships, privacy) for social work researchers interested in addressing the needs and outcomes of children.
The papers in this symposium address the related issues of how different states, and partnering universities, developed the capacity to utilize “big data” to address children’s issues. In particular, the symposium participants will discuss handling multi-agency data to address the complex needs of children and youth served by these agencies, present cross-systems research questions, describe appropriate analytic methodologies, and report the results of these inquiries. This information is particularly needed for social work researchers to encourage communication of these innovations in the wake of technological advances.
The first paper addresses whether maltreated children are at a higher risk for placement in psychiatric residential treatment facilities (PRTFs), and whether their demographics and residential placement histories differ from those in PRTFs without child welfare histories. The second paper examines trends in the timing and type of psychotropic drug prescriptions of child welfare youth in PRTFs, and the relationship of these trends to demographics and diagnosis histories. The third paper examines the cumulative contact and trajectory of children through the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Finally, a discussant, experienced in utilizing cross-system administrative data in research, will serve as a wrap-up regarding the potential and challenges of “big data.”
Taken together, these papers provide insights into how linked data are used to assess cross-system research questions. Common themes include the complexity of data matching, data cleaning, data ownership, and developing meaningful questions. A key benefit of big data analysis is the ability to leverage large longitudinal datasets to examine policy-relevant issues in detail that would not be feasible using observational research methods with small samples. PRTF entry, for example, is a relatively rare event, but PRTFs are a costly and restrictive placement. Further, all three papers report results from entire statewide service populations, greatly enhancing external validity. This symposium contributes to the dialogue between researchers regarding ways in which data from across child-serving systems are obtained, maintained, and developed, as each research team has experiences developing data-sharing agreements and agency relationships that are necessary to implement successful research.
Conclusions and Implications
These papers represent ways in which researchers in social work have addressed the possibilities of administrative data in addressing the challenging area of multiple system involvement of children. Such research is used to inform the future of practice to transform systems that serve children and youth.