Precious Cargo: Foster Kids Gain From Mobile Solution

By  Susan Nunziata — March 16, 2009

(Want more about mobile workforce management? Read our feature report, Mobile Workforce Management: The Brave New World).

Laptops. Cellphones. GPS. These are tools that so many enterprise workers take for granted. Yet, in a field such as social work -- where the bottom line isn't measured in dollars but in the lives of children -- putting laptops and cellphones into the hands of case workers is a revolutionary concept.

Pat Smith, CIO of Our Kids of Miami-Dade/Monroe, joined the Florida-based organization from a stint in the pharmaceutical industry, where mobile solutions for field sales reps are de rigeur

"When I joined, [caseworkers] reminded me of insurance salesmen in the 1950s," she says.
Case workers are either at the office or in court all day, visiting families in the evenings and on weekends, and responding to emergency calls at all hours. All the while, they need to coordinate with a wide array of entities, including schools, clinicians, psychologists, biological parents, lawyers, guardians, the state Department of Children & Families, their own agencies and their co-workers.

"And they're doing it all with reams and piles of paper," says Smith.

In 2006, the organization -- a non-profit created in response to the need for local control and leadership of the state's child welfare system -- began exploring technology options.

The efforts caught the attention of Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who in February 2008 pledged funding for the effort. By November 2008, nearly 80% of the agency's 250 case workers had Panasonic Toughbooks with WiFi access, plus Samsung Blackjack II Windows Mobile phones from AT&T that serve double duty as cellular modems for the laptops. The phones are equipped with Xora TimeTrack software, GPS, cameras, calendar, email, LoJack, and emergency panic buttons, among other features.

It took $500,000 to get the project off the ground, and the monthly service fee per case worker is around $100.

The combination of computers and phones provides case workers with 24/7 remote access to the Florida State Families Network and the Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System, the two main bodies that require the bulk of caseworker reporting.

"We have both a federal and a state requirement that our case workers visit a child every 30 days," says Smith. "In the past there have been all kinds of difficulties with validating those data and making sure those visits actually took place. We have included software on the phones that enables the caseworker [at the time of a visit with the child] to attach a photo to the child's number in the state system, along with the date and the time and the GPS location when the photo was taken. We can, beyond a shadow of a doubt, validate that this child is being visited with the frequency that the regulations demand, and that we want to have happen with these children."

The images never reside on the phone, but rather are immediately uploaded to a secure website. Extensive security measures are in place to ensure that the devices meet HIPAA regulations for protecting the personal information of the children.

"Unfortunately, it seems like the for-profit world has gotten this right because it's driving business sales and growth and market share," says Fran Allegra, Executive Director of Our Kids. "And the non-profit world really hasn't gotten this right. Yet this technology is going to help everyone's bottom line, because it's going to reduce risk and it's going to keep children safe."

For more use cases and trends around rugged devices in the field, see our Field Service Central report, Real-World Rugged.

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