Ask any human services agency the right time to introduce new technology and you’ll be met with hesitation. Leaders already worry that this type of major change may interrupt service delivery. Add the ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic across our communities and everything becomes even more uncertain.
While some agencies have been cautious to prioritize and invest in technology amid COVID-19, the leadership team at Brunswick County Department of Social Services (DSS) felt the opposite.
When reports of child abuse and neglect went down as the pandemic began to unfold, they recognized the opportunity to get a new tool in place that would help social workers respond quickly and in the most meaningful way when those reports inevitably picked back up.
“We know there's never a perfect time to introduce a new technology program,” said Rich Ohmer, social work program administrator. “But the right pieces came together, and things slowed down a bit, so we decided to do it now.”
Brunswick County DSS has provided 40 social workers in child and adult protective services (along with their supervisors, program manager, administrator, and several administrative and legal team members) with Traverse®, Northwoods’ solution for child welfare, to support telework and enable social work from anywhere.
As detailed below, Traverse brings immediate support, assistance, and relief to overburdened frontline workers so they can focus on families, even when in-person contact is limited.
Brunswick County’s executive team had the foresight to invest in modernizing the agency’s technology long before COVID-19 emerged, so the county had already approved budget for Traverse in the 2020 fiscal year. Once the state approved Brunswick County’s request to move forward, it was simply a matter of getting things going as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Traverse Supports Telework and Meaningful Service Delivery
Social workers use Traverse to access case content and information from anywhere, anytime. Social workers can also scan and upload new documents, take photos, capture audio or video, complete and sign forms electronically, and collaborate with clients or supervisors—all regardless of location or level of connectivity. They can refer families for necessary services right away, which builds trust and helps families quickly receive the help they need.
All of this is especially helpful for Brunswick County DSS’ social workers as they worked from home throughout COVID-19 shutdowns (staff went home in March and began learning the software in late May). Now, although most workers can be back in the office, they’re in a better position to work remotely without interruption in the future.
“Being able to access the system remotely and consistently has helped a lot,” Ohmer said. “They can work from home or work from anywhere pretty easily.”
Ohmer says the technology will help in three key areas:
- Creating organized, searchable case files. Social workers use Traverse to easily collect and classify a variety of content and documents, which creates organized, easily accessible electronic case files. Not only can social workers see all their cases in one spot, but information is organized in a way that makes it easier to use. “It isn’t just searching for a person or an item. It’s how you can organize and categorize the content that’s in there,” Ohmer said.
- Mining critical case information. Social workers can access all case content and history, including critical, but hidden details that have been buried over time, from anywhere. They can apply this holistic view of the case to making informed, confident decisions focused on safety and outcomes. "We've had issues in the past where we've missed certain things because it's hard to pick out specific information when you're reading through a bunch of documents,” Ohmer said. “With Traverse, being able to quickly scan and search for information and filter results to narrow in on certain topics, keywords, or document types will be helpful."
- Improving collaboration with supervisors. Supervisors can quickly get a high-level understanding of what’s going on with each of their workers’ cases, with the ability to dig deeper into specific pieces of content for more detailed information and context. Ohmer says it’s especially helpful that supervisors can narrow down their searches by content type—for example, solely looking at narratives from home visits—to make sure they have the most relevant information to the unique situation a worker needs help with managing.
- Creating consistency with forms. Like most agencies, Brunswick County DSS’ social workers need to manage state, county, and outside agency/provider forms. While forms in Traverse are designed to match what’s required for the state system, each social worker still has flexibility to interact with a form the way they need to depending on their situation. "Traverse will create consistency, which is an issue we've had in the past,” Ohmer said. “Forms will have a clear format, so it'll be quicker and more intuitive to fill them out. With narratives, workers can write as much as they need without having to try to fit it within a certain space or text box."
Additional Benefits: Quickly Organizing, Accessing, and Using Critical Information
Ohmer says the agency is already seeing several “quick wins” in the first three months since Traverse was implemented, including:
- Placing a child with extended family. One worker successfully placed a child with a relative that they were able to quickly research and locate now that case history is more accessible and easier to search.
- Finding and assessing a family’s safety. Another worker used Traverse to confirm a new address for a family who had moved to a different county. Without this information both documented and searchable in the system, the worker may not have been able to find or assess the family’s safety when needed.
- Quickly onboarding and acclimating new staff. A member of the coaching team (established during implementation) has now taken on training for all new staff, which makes the process more consistent and efficient. New staff have been able to get up to speed and start entering notes quickly between having this dedicated resource and how easy the software is to use.
- Easily finding forms by number or name. Workers used to keep “cheat sheets” to reference the forms they needed by number or look to old forms to find the right code. Now, they can filter by number, specific name, or text within a name to quickly find what they need in Traverse.
- Improving data quality and accuracy. The agency has also been able to consolidate certain required state forms, which minimizes duplicative data entry. Forms are now completed faster and more accurately.
- Seeing and sharing key information. Workers add content to boards within Traverse (if you’ve used Pinterest, you’re likely familiar with this concept of pinning something to a virtual board), such as important information or documents they want to review or share with coworkers who may need to step in or provide support on a case.
As agency staff get more comfortable using the software, they’re also identifying creative ways to classify and organize important information to make it even easier to find in the future. A couple of examples:
- Using comments to summarize content items. In addition to the classification Traverse does automatically, Ohmer has been encouraging workers to leave a brief statement on each content item to provide additional clarification as to what’s in it. (He says the goal is to find ways to add keywords all searchable fields to continue improving the findability of key information.) That way, anyone quickly knows if they need to open or review a content item before reading through the whole thing.
- Using organizations to track foster families. All foster parents are part of their own unique case which can also include any children placed within their home. All relevant information is scanned into the system and provides a central location to reference any documentation collected throughout the agency’s involvement with the child or family (these documents used to be on paper in a filing cabinet). Now, workers can simply search the organization “Brunswick County Foster Parents” to find any information they need on a foster parent or family, such as where a child is placed or if the parents have finished required parenting classes.
Remote Implementation to Move Quickly While Minimizing Risk
Northwoods’ professional services team can fully implement Traverse remotely so caseworkers can start seeing benefits right away. Remote implementations are typically delivered in a condensed time frame, which for Brunswick County DSS was eight weeks.
The agency’s decision to implement remotely was partially due to circumstance, but also a strategic move to support their goal of getting Traverse in place as quickly as possible during the downtime from COVID-19 shutdowns. "We chose the 8-week implementation so that we're through the process and ready to go whenever reports pick back up,” Ohmer said.
Despite initial concerns that social workers may not be comfortable adopting a new tool and processes without in-person training and support, Ohmer said the implementation went smoothly because the Northwoods team was always available to answer questions and the software was so easy to learn.
He added that 1:1 coaching with the Northwoods team was especially beneficial to help workers learn how to tailor the software to their unique processes and needs.
"There's a learning curve and things are different than what a lot of workers are used to. But it's pretty intuitive, so I don't think that’s an issue,” he said. “The benefits and ease of use outweigh the challenges."
The condensed timeline has also encouraged Brunswick County DSS’ social workers to get all of their documentation current and caught up before restrictions lifted and the usual level of activity resumed.
Traverse for North Carolina
Northwoods has established partnerships with over 40 county agencies across North Carolina. Building on this history of innovation, Traverse modernizes child welfare service delivery and empowers social workers across the state to do high-value direct service work with children and families.
Brunswick County DSS is one of six counties in North Carolina that has invested in Traverse this year to help staff telework, prioritize safety, and deliver mission-critical services. Pitt County Department of Social Services wrapped up their implementation at the beginning of July and Wilson County Department of Social Services finished in August.
Additional projects are currently in progress: Ashe County Department of Social Services started in late August, Cabarrus County Department of Social Services just started in early October, and Johnston County Department of Social Services will kick off in a few weeks. (All of these projects have been/are being implemented remotely too.)
Interested in learning how Traverse can help your agency? Check out these additional resources:
- Watch the webinar, Traverse® for North Carolina, for an overview and tailored demo
- Download the corresponding data sheet for more benefits to North Carolina counties
- View all of our resources for managing remote teams in child welfare
- View our blog post on why and how to prioritize and invest in technology amid COVID-19 or download our child welfare market trends report (with GovLoop and AWS) for more on how technology is transforming the field
- Hear from agencies across the country about how Traverse helps them meet their missions
Editor's note: This blog post was originally published in July 2020, shortly after Brunswick County DSS completed its implementation (and amid COVID-19 shutdowns). It's been recently updated to include additional information now that workers have been using the software for a few months (and have returned to the office as needed).
Matt Leasure, Northwoods' manager, solution project managers, leads an implementation team dedicated to delivering solutions designed for child and adult protective services. As Matt works closely with agencies to place intuitive technology in the hands of their frontline social workers and supervisors, he and his team focus their efforts on applying a genuine understanding of the unique business processes familiar to the field of child welfare. Since 2011, Matt’s strong commitment and dedication to helping those who serve families and children has been his driving force as he has worked with countless organizations throughout the country.