Digital Pen Speeds Foster Kids' Cases Through Court

— March 08, 2011

Our Kids of Miami-Dade/Monroe, Inc., the local lead agency for child welfare in Miami and the Florida Keys, has adopted the use of a “digital pen” in juvenile court proceedings involving foster children in their care. Court documents account for 40%-50% of the essential paperwork in the foster care system. With approximately 3,000 foster children in its care in Miami and the Keys, Our Kids is leading the state in innovative technology for child welfare professionals increasing caseworker productivity and efficiency.
 
“Our success over the past two years with technological innovations such as OK Connect and ASK have inspired us to enter new frontiers in the juvenile court,” says Frances P. Allegra, CEO, Our Kids of Miami-Dade/Monroe, Inc. “The use of a digital pen in the courtroom streamlines the collection of information and moves the foster child much quicker through the foster care system, ultimately ensuring their safety and overall welfare.”
 
Similar technology is being used in other courts around the country, however, this is first time the technology has been used in a juvenile court. Operating like a small laptop computer, the digital pen has a chip in it with a small camera that captures images of handwritten notes and converts the images to digital text. Each Children’s Legal Services (CLS) attorney is assigned a digital pen. Using a form called the Court Memo, which has been prefilled with relevant data about the case, the attorney makes notes and checks boxes to change the legal status of the child while in court.

Once the hearing is complete, the CLS attorney touches a barcode on the form to upload the information to their BlackBerry/PDA device. The information is then securely and wirelessly transmitted to the State of Florida’s computer system and database (called SACWIS). The original Court Memo form on paper then becomes a permanent part of the child’s legal case file. The information is immediately accessible to Our Kids’ caseworkers and staff after the download.
 
"CLS is fully embracing the PenPal technology to further maximize efficiencies and improve the quality of critical data,” says Donald J. Cannava, CLS deputy regional director, Department of Children and Families. “Our partnership on this project with Our Kids has been a great example of the collaboration that is essential to our collective success in improving results for Florida's dependent children. We look forward to full implementation of PenPal and further pushing the technology envelope with Our Kids."
 
Our Kids tested the digital pen in the fall of 2010 with a group of approximately six CLS attorneys who had previously chosen to use the digital pen over a tablet computer. The digital pen, referred to as “PenPal,” is now available to 35 attorneys in Miami with an investment that amounts to approximately $10 per child. “The return on investment on projects like this is priceless. Children are safer in foster care. The workforce is more engaged and productive. The time in court is minimized for attorneys, case workers, and children, making the process much more efficient,” says Patricia Smith, CIO, Our Kids of Miami-Dade/Monroe, Inc.
 
In 2008, Our Kids partnered with AT&T to launch OK Connect, an award-winning cutting-edge mobile device for child welfare caseworkers. Using software and equipment supplied by AT&T and Samsung, dozens of case managers now have laptops (equipped with Wi-Fi) and Samsung Blackjack III Windows Mobile phones, which allow them to manage cases from the front lines.

Using their mobile phones, case managers take a date-, time-, and GPS-location-stamped picture of the foster children in their case load during the monthly home visit, which provides the State of Florida with irrefutable proof that children are being frequently monitored for their safety. Governor Charlie Crist recently approved an additional $6.3 million in funding to expand the program statewide.

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