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For decades, child welfare agencies have struggled with finding technology solutions to support consistent connection and communication between case workers, families, vulnerable youth, and an extended team of stakeholders. COVID-19 exacerbated those challenges, bringing to a head the need for states to provide its workers and constituents tools that bring continuity and communication despite disruption. Microsoft has been working intently with state and local agencies, such as Illinois Department of Child and Family Services (IL-DCFS) and the Georgia Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) to help them reimagine and modernize their connection and collaboration capabilities. In September, the Microsoft Team will be joined by both agencies at the 2021 Annual ISM Conference to discuss these topics, and more.

The gold standard for youth and families

Across Microsoft’s work with child welfare state agencies, the historical and universal question has been “how can technology improve the situation for children and families?” This is especially daunting given the myriad of challenges agencies face: high case worker load and turnover, connecting external teams, and the pandemic-related challenges of limited face-to-face interaction.

“This has been nebulous and frustrating because historically technology has not been able to address that need,” said Andy Pitman, Microsoft Director, US Health and Human Services Solutions. “The pandemic created a bigger focus on that problem, but the same challenge has been there for decades: how to create better continuity and real connection for the children and families relying on these extended support teams.”

Two years ago, Microsoft began talking with both the Georgia Division of Child and Family Services and Illinois Departments of Child and Family Services (IL-DCFS) about how to build upon the Microsoft Teams platform to augment communication among case workers, children, families, and external support teams.

The result of the collaboration with IL-DCFS is Ally, a child-welfare specific solution residing on the Microsoft Teams platform using unique micro-services, as well as a custom database to plug in with Illinois’ legacy Child Welfare Case Management System. Initially rolled out to 10 Ally groups, the adoption and success has been so positive that they plan to roll it out agency-wide (10,000+ Ally teams) in the fall of 2021.

“Ally has helped Illinois achieve a long-term goal in child welfare, bringing case participants together in a whole new way,” said Anna Corley, Microsoft Director of Business Development. “It was the confluence of the Teams infrastructure, the pandemic forcing alternatives to traditional practices, and people’s acceptance of this type of technology. There will always be a need for in-person interaction, but with Teams, Illinois has found the sweet spot for creating meaningful ongoing virtual connections and efficiency for the agency.”

One of the reasons for Illinois’ success is youth familiarity with apps to communicate. “This is something they’re familiar with,” said Corley. “It naturally leads towards an avenue they feel comfortable using and that is incredibly important whenever a case is transferred. Usually, kids go through intense anxiety and stress when there is disruption with their case workers. The video conferencing and ability to share key childhood moments, has reduced anxiety and improved the trust and open communication with children, foster families, and biological families.”

For IL-DCFS case workers, the Ally solution is also specific to their needs and provides tools for case management and team access that wasn’t previously possible. Case workers in every state have high caseloads and carry a huge amount of required documentation. In Illinois, the Ally solution is helping lift that load so they can spend more time on creating meaningful connections with children and families. Because of the immediate synchronicity of documentation, supervisors can get involved in emergency events as they develop and offer greater assistance. For case workers, they’ve been able to schedule meetings with two messages in Ally, versus relying on a cascade of 10-12 calls, texts, and emails to all the stakeholders in the past. This leads to not only more timely conversations, but more time for the case workers to individually connect with youth and families.

“Unfortunately, child welfare agencies will never have the necessary budgets and resources to adequately counter demand; but Teams is the ultimate capacity builder,” said Greg McKay, former child welfare agency head and Microsoft global director. “In person interactions will always be necessary for some situations, but Teams allows for less travel, limits unnecessary documentation, and reduces scheduling conflicts, all while bringing multiple pertinent parties together in one virtual space—finally a way to win for children, families, and the staff who serve them.”

Preserving the human connection

Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) also began using the Microsoft Teams platform to facilitate quicker and more efficient communications and support for high-risk youth and families.

Using Teams, DFCS case managers coordinate calls and other communications with the Promoting Reasonable Efforts Team (PRE-Team) of 15-20 people, including DCFS leadership, case managers, and external interested parties such as the Office of the Child Advocate, legal counsel, and hospital personnel. These calls are typically in response to emergency situations and need to happen within an hour. In the past, this was a laborious and manual process of texts, emails, and phone calls. Now, with Teams, they pull together a PRE-Team meeting in a few minutes.

In addition to efficiency, Teams is also allowing for more meaningful connections during times of duress. “The case managers are dealing with anxious and worried family members,” noted Pitman. “Video connection between foster parents, youth, and case workers has made a huge difference in building the trust between those parties and showing up as partner in the process. Georgia’s DCFS is seeing more preservation of placements and changing the child’s and family’s perspectives about the support and continuity of their case. That is the most important thing we can achieve.”

Building connections for all

“Any state can take advantage of the Teams platform, regardless of where they are in their modernization path and process,” noted Pitman. “It can complement the oldest system in the world or easily plug in to a brand-new system. Plus, being platform agnostic, regardless of the agencies’ starting point, it will seamlessly connect and help create content, documentation, translation, notes—all providing speed and efficiency for case workers and their extended teams.”

Beyond child welfare, Microsoft is seeing other state agencies on similar paths towards implementing the Teams solution to propagate their services and meet ever evolving communication needs with their constituents.

“We are so proud to see how Illinois and Georgia have used this infrastructure to improve their child welfare agencies’ connections and communications,” said Corley. “Knowing this is helping change the lives of those in need is truly amazing and we are excited to see how it can be expanded to future use cases.”

Join us

We invite you to attend, either in person or virtually, the upcoming session on Reimagining Collaboration in the Government of Tomorrow at the 2021 ISM Annual Conference. You will hear directly from both Microsoft and Illinois DSCIS about how Ally and Teams is helping change the welfare and care experience for children, families, case workers, and how this can be expanded to other health and human services programs.

Get additional information on Illinois’ Ally solution and Georgia’s partnership with Microsoft.

Visit our web page to learn more about how Microsoft is improving outcomes for vulnerable people by enabling aware and connected public and social workers. Review public health and social service solutions that help to create opportunities for safety, wellness, and prosperity around the globe.