Case Study: Florida

A statewide workgroup was convened with the goal of integrating school system data into the child welfare data system, so that both case workers and foster parents could have timely information about a child’s attendance, special educations meetings and performance in school.  The workgroup includes representatives of the Florida Department of Children and Families, Department of Education, community-based care agencies, various foundations and child advocates. 

In the past, the Department of Children and Families was unable to access timely school information about foster children enrolled in local school systems.  Although child welfare case workers could access historical information by special request, it was difficult and time consuming.  School officials were concerned that sharing data would violate FERPA.

The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-351) requires that child welfare staff work closely with school systems to ensure that a child’s educational needs are being met.  The statute includes a case plan requirement to assure educational stability for children in foster care, and requires that the child welfare agency assure that each child is attending school full time or has completed secondary school.   Our primary goal was for case workers to have ready access to the educational progress data for each child to ensure their educational case goals were being met.

Most child welfare staff held a widely shared misperception that laws creating the SACWIS (State Automated Child Welfare Information System) specified that only data entered by child welfare workers was permitted.  (See Public Law 103-66, Public Law 104-9, Section 479 of Tile IV-E of the Social Security Act.)  By going back to the statutes that created SACWIS systems, the workgroup able to dispel the myth.  The statutes are quite clear that SACWIS systems should be designed to exchange data with other systems.

In addition, when the workgroup began the project, FERPA was “silent” on educators sharing information with child welfare workers.  It neither permitted nor prohibited the sharing of information with child welfare workers.  Then in January 2013, the Uninterrupted Scholars Act (USA) amended FERPA to make it easier for child welfare workers to access educational data.  With the amendment, the Florida Department of Education was willing to work with child welfare on a data sharing project.   The Department of Children and Families entered into a separate MOU with each of the 67 school districts to facilitate the provision of education information to the department.

The project then evolved so that information was flowing in both directions.  The project began with the child welfare system asking for information about children in its care; the schools were not interested in receiving any child welfare information.  The data exchange was one way.  But as the Department of Children and Families began drafting the MOU’s with each school district, the schools began asking for an actual data exchange, i.e., to receive placement data, contact data and information on chronic illnesses from the child welfare system.

Once the Department of Children and Families had access to the education data, the department came up with the idea to send foster parents email notices of grades, suspensions and absences, thus enabling them to be better partners in ensuring school success for the children in their care.  The Department educated itself on what education information could be re-disclosed to foster parents under FERPA and state statues permitted to be “re-disclosed” to foster parents and make it part of our MOU’s.  The MOU with each school system also had to include how each school system was going to “re-disclose” child welfare data to which school staff.  The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (Public Law 93-247) does not prevent re-disclosure but leaves it up to state statute.  Florida law permits sharing of child welfare data with school “liaisons” and principals and permits re-disclosure to additional staff only on a “need-to-know” basis.

The state workgroup realized that understanding the privacy laws, getting agreement on objectives from stakeholders, putting MOU’s in place and initiating a data exchange does not mean the work is complete but part of a continuum of progress.  Now that the group has the data exchange working in a few districts, the group is discussing how to best use the data.  The data is already being used to inform case workers and foster parents on daily absences, tardiness and suspensions, satisfying the workgroup’s our primary goal.  However, the work of changing practice and strategies for intervention is just beginning.   To that end, the work group has identified 19 specific outcomes and 98 data elements that it wishes to track on an aggregate basis to inform changes in program and policies going forward.