I recently had the opportunity to attend some sessions at the National Resource Center on Child Welfare Data & Technology (NRCCWDT) conference as well as National Youth in Transition Database (NYTD) and Court Improvement Program (CIP) sessions. I know, lots of acronyms!
I learned about some great projects going on in child welfare, youth programs, data collection, and court improvement activities. I spent several hours listening to presenters and colleagues while frantically taking notes so I didn’t miss anything. Occasionally I looked up websites during sessions in my eagerness to learn about activities and initiatives that were improving the services for vulnerable youth and families. (How did I function before hand-held technology??!)
It struck me as I was listening that, while there are great things going on across the country, we continue to be fairly isolated in our approach to improving child welfare, despite the great communication technology. We are better than we were, say, 15 or 20 years ago. But it still can take months or years for ‘project A’ in ‘state #2’ to get to ‘state #22’. Why is that? What about the Hundredth Monkey effect? Remember that little book by Ken Keyes, Jr., describing Lyall Watson’s earlier published claims in the book, Lifetide, about monkeys on separate islands? If you didn’t read either book, the general theory here is that when enough monkeys on one island learn a new skill, such as washing potatoes before eating them, monkeys on another island will begin doing the same thing despite never having observed it themselves.
The parallel to human societies is that, once enough people start doing something, others will automatically begin doing the same thing without having had the opportunity to ‘learn’ or observe the behavior themselves. So coming back to child welfare, why is it that a jurisdiction can start a new project, have great outcomes for kids and families, and yet, remain isolated and not taken to scale with a larger population?
If this is still too theoretical to contemplate, let me share an example. Dr. Mark Courtney, a well-known researcher in the child welfare world, talked about the value of collecting and analyzing data regarding youth transitioning out of foster care. He shared lots of information and data about how kids seem to proceed on trajectories that result in successful transition to adulthood, or unfortunately, experience a myriad of challenges such as homelessness, poverty, and criminal involvement. So why aren’t we all clamoring to look at this data and learn from it, adopt successful strategies, and give vulnerable youth a decent start as young adults? After all, there are successful strategies out there. And why would everyone *not* run out and collect all the data possible to better understand the youth and challenges in their jurisdictions?
I know, there are lots of factors that influence the services to children and youth in any given jurisdiction. Legislation, money, geography, community, stakeholders, resources & and services, and a whole host of other factors are involved. A person can’t just wake up one morning and say, “I think we need to change the way we are doing things because there is a better way”. But wouldn’t it be great for kids if we routinely shared and assimilated information about promising practices and evidence-based practices as well as implementation strategies so that every child and family involved in the child welfare system has the best possible chance at being successful? We are getting better, but we aren’t there yet!
One final note, I should mention for those that may have missed the Hundredth Monkey movement in the 60’s and 70’s, it was eventually debunked as myth. But it was a nice myth while it lasted. Some of us would still like to believe it. In the meantime, learning and sharing information and resources at conferences is not a bad way to spend a few days.