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Session Watch: Big Data Abounds

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May 1, 2017

When it comes to making policy decisions around the Capitol, Big Data, defined as large data sets that can be analyzed for a host of patterns and trends, is driving many of the narratives.

As a longtime advocate for our abused and neglected children, I pay special attention to data collected on child abuse allegations, child abuse confirmations, Child Protective Services (CPS) caseworker turnover, the number of cases our CPS caseworkers are responsible for at any one given time, the number of families receiving prevention services, and the most disheartening—the number of child deaths due to abuse and neglect each year.

April was National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and there were many activities surrounding the month that I participated in. Last year, I increased the volume of my call to reduce CPS caseworker turnover by raising salaries to a level that is justified by the difficulty of the profession. Eventually, my colleagues on Senate Finance agreed with me and caseworker pay was hiked $1,000 per month!

Fast forward to this year, and the first batch of data tells us that our investments had their desired effect. Caseworker turnover is down, and the number of children categorized at a priority one risk level who are visited timely has increased. When you crunch the big data on those numbers and translate it into everyday terms, it means kids are safer, and lives have been saved.

But data doesn’t rest, and neither should we. Data changes constantly, and if you are using it correctly, other areas of concern can be identified early. Just last month, we saw the number of children spending the night in CPS offices due to lack of foster care placements reach an unacceptable level. This is hardly a new phenomenon; the legislature has been battling to increase placements for over a decade. We see the data, and now we must act on it.

Placing a child with a relative, known as kinship placement, is always the most desired placement. Kinship placements aren’t always available for a variety of reasons. The legislature should increase kinship placements by providing financial resources to the relative, if needed, to help defray the monetary costs of caring for that child. These funds are often far less than Texas would spend on a non-kinship placement, but can make a big difference to a relative who would like to care for the child but lives on a fixed or low income.

To further increase the number of placement opportunities, I’ve filed Senate Bill 879 to remove some previous offenses that are being used to disqualify relatives for kinship placements. I would never want to put a child in an unsafe situation, but previous legal trouble that is non-violent in nature, such as unpaid parking tickets, or a charge for minor in possession many years ago, should not in itself disqualify that relative. We need to use "common sense" metrics to place a child when family is willing and able to care for that child.

We can also use data in a proactive manner. The Senate passed my legislation, Senate Bill 687, which will encourage the Department of Family and Protective Services to use a data-driven approach for deployment of our scarce child abuse prevention and early intervention programs to have as large on an impact as possible in areas that need it the most.

Data is a useful tool and can save both money and lives. As technology changes, government must remain nimble and at the forefront of realizing the benefits it can provide. But, we must not forget that behind every statistic and data point is a child whose life will be changed by our action or inaction. Just as the legislature must analyze data and act accordingly, we must all reaffirm our commitment to act accordingly if we know or suspect abuse or neglect of a child is occurring.