Faculty News

Wolverine Caucus: Child and Family Public Policy

Researchers at the University of Michigan are exploring how data can help address challenges facing child welfare and juvenile justice systems in the United States, and where data can help impact public policy surrounding child and family systems.  

Joseph P. Ryan, PhD, Professor of Social Work and Co-Director of the Child and Adolescent Data Lab (CADL), joined the Wolverine Caucus on Jan. 28 to discuss how using data to drive policy can improve outcomes for vulnerable children, adolescents, and their families. The Wolverine Caucus is a forum held in the state capital where alumni, policymakers, and the public can hear from University of Michigan faculty experts and engage in an enlightening discussions on topics that impact society. 

The Lab, founded in 2015, is an applied research center focused on using a data-driven approach to inform policy and practice decisions in child welfare and juvenile justice. 

According to federal data collected by the CADL, in the United States today there are more than 435,000 children in foster care, more than 45,000 juveniles held in residential facilities, and more than 850,000 juvenile arrests. Ryan noted that there are also approximately 160,000 complaints each year to the hotline related to child abuse and neglect, resulting in about 100,000 child protection service investigations annually.

“We have [data based on] geography, we have sub-populations, and we have duration,” he explained. “So we can use data to help guide us in thinking about where to best use resources to improve systems. We can be more thoughtful and strategic in our programming and planning.” 

Ryan explained to the crowd gathered at the Michigan Senate Building how his research works with the data to identify opportunities for improvements. He also discussed the need for data integration in order to analyze a bigger picture. When data is stored but not shared, it doesn’t provide a full picture of how a person’s experience in one system impacts their outcomes in another. 

“We have been developing data-sharing agreements to link child protection data, foster care data, juvenile justice data, Michigan State Police adult arrest data, and education data. And we are finding that it is quite useful.” 

The Caucus members in attendance asked several questions about goals, best practices, and barriers to data sharing. Ryan took the opportunity to reaffirm the importance of collaboration between higher education institutions and state governments. 

“The goal of using these data is to inform the system,” Ryan said.

“There are clear returns on investments for state government to be engaged in things like data analytics and data integrations, and universities are good partners for that.”

He explained that partnerships build on collective expertise, with those on the university side weighing in with research and data knowledge, and the governmental entities working on policy development.

“No one entity can do all of the work. That’s the power of these partnerships,” he emphasized. 

“Information and data should inform public policy. We need to develop mechanisms for sharing data in safe environments and it needs to be a quick-response system.”

The CADL is also working on other projects in collaboration with Poverty Solutions to identify the correlation of poverty, and with HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement on a data project to look at how children move through shelters and into foster care systems.

Learn more about Ryan’s research and what he presented at the Wolverine Caucus in this episode of Michigan Minds.

Interested in attending a future Wolverine Caucus program? Visit the Government Relations website to stay informed about upcoming events. 

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