Over the course of my four decades of working to keep young people safe and helping them to thrive, I’ve always known that nothing is more important than seeing the entire picture, the whole child.
If a child is disruptive in school, the teacher and school social worker may know only that they have a discipline problem that they must address. They may not know that the child has suffered abuse at the hands of an “uncle” for several years (information held by child protective services), that his father is in prison (information held by the court or probation), or that his little brother had been shot on the street a few weeks earlier (information held by the police). Similarly, if a youth is charged with a juvenile offence, her probation officer may see a requirement of school attendance as obviously in her best interests. What that officer may not know is that her learning disabilities make school a place of personal shame and pain rather than a promising venue to get her life back on track.
Do we really know our kids well enough to serve them well? If not, how do we build local partnerships and systems that make it possible to share sensitive and confidential information about young people while still protecting the privacy rights of parents and children?
The stakes can be frighteningly high. I’ll never forget listening to Philadelphia’s Mayor Michael Nutter as he framed the challenge of data sharing as a matter of life and death. I serve as member of the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention’s site visit team. Two years ago the Justice team visited Philadelphia where I heard Mayor Nutter’s passionate views about data sharing, views that went well beyond the technical. “Look: we’re often faced with situations where we know a youth is about to kill or be killed, and we have to rethink all the data and legal issues, because this is not a legal or technical issue. We’re talking about saving lives. Data sharing is a moral issue!”
For parents seeking help for their children, “the confusion can be overwhelming,” says Dan Kelly, director of planning for San Francisco’s Human Services Agency. “Every mother and father, no matter how troubled, wants their child to have a better life. To see a child struggling in school or in the community and know that help is available but difficult to find because the systems providing it are scattered and disorganized – that must be profoundly frustrating.”
Most importantly, danger signals are not shared. As a result, youth, many of whom might have been diverted from trouble or harm, are not identified early on as being at extreme risk. Andrew Wong, an expert in data-sharing strategies who analyzed the data in San Francisco, concluded that those young people served by multiple systems were at increased risk of committing a serious crime; over half of San Franciscans involved in multiple service systems were convicted of a serious crime.
The City and County of San Francisco (a consolidated unit of local government) is at the vanguard of efforts to overcome these barriers. Its Shared Youth Database, a product of more than a decade of arduous work and cross-agency negotiations, balances the need to improve outcomes for clients and increase efficiency of operations while protecting the privacy of families and children. A formal memorandum of understanding (MOU) ensures compliance with legal requirements regarding confidentiality of data and allows the departments of public health, child welfare, and juvenile probation to pool information in a secure database.
The MOU has transformed how the city responds to children and families in need. For example, a child protective service worker can now find out if a child in an emergency situation has a probation officer or a psychiatrist who should be involved in a response plan. Trish Rudden, a child welfare supervisor in San Francisco’s Human Services Agency, brings home the critical importance of the city’s data-sharing efforts. “Without the Shared Youth Database, child welfare workers have to rely on an archaic system of communication, often based on the foster parents themselves. They don’t find out if a child is missing his appointments until a negative pattern sets in.”
So many of the kids in the child welfare or juvenile justice systems emerge from highly-stressed, often chaotic families – a single parent working two jobs with little time for bedtime reading or attending family days at school, a parent unable to ensure that her son meets with his probation officer, unable to address her daughter’s emerging pattern of truancy, a parent chronically worried about rental payments. Our systems burden overburdened parents: a visit to a probation officer across town one day, to a school adjustment counselor another and to a mental health worker another. The least our helping systems can do is not trip over each other, to coordinate better, and optimally to know, really know a child through the sharing of data.
To learn more about the San Francisco’s Shared Youth Database and the challenges that city leaders overcame to put it in place, see NLC’s new brief The Case for Data-Sharing: San Francisco’s Shared Youth Database and the NLC-Stewards of Change Confidentiality Tool Kit.