Some Interesting Conversations

After 7 days of conferencing, I took myself off to Melbourne Australia for a spot of R&R, as well as a series of one-to-one discussions with sector experts. Some of these were contacts I’d made during my time in Auckland. Others were through correspondence with people I’d been introduced to before I left the UK.

They helped to soundboard some of my initial ideas, challenge others and generally focus my attentions ahead of the second half of my fellowship in the USA.

DR PHILIP GILLINGHAM - Senior Lecturer and Director of the Master of Social Work, Graduate Certificates in Community Development, Social Policy and Social Work (Mental Health) at the University of Queensland

Philip has spent over 16 years in professional practice as a social worker, in England and Australia. He has worked in many fields of social work and has specialised in child protection, welfare and mental health. Most recently, his PhD has brought to my attention a research topic of great interest to my fellowship; human service organisations and the use of information and communication technology in social work.

This essentially refers to the way that charities or agencies record information about their clients (children in care, for example) and then use that data for reporting and analysis.

Philip became interested in how organisations working with children and vulnerable people selected their information systems, utilised them and evaluated their effectiveness.

Together we discussed the following challenges and issues:

  • There is a ‘blind faith’ in information systems; used without due consideration for how and why they are being implemented
  • As such they become political problems, with organisations looking to justify very significant levels of financial investment
  • Transactional systems (as you might find in the banking and insurance sectors, for example) present challenges for human service organisations who need to categorise people.
  • How do you categorise people? Judgements can inform stigmas - but without it, it becomes difficult to use the data effectively. For example, how do you define mental health?
  • Social work has seen a shift in recent years; from predominantly being based ‘in the field’ - working with individuals face to face with the administrative processes managed by dedicated staff, to a combined role that sees social workers carrying out much of their own administration.
  • This may explain the need for ‘bigger or better’ information systems; it also means that more and more users are clouding the accuracy of information put into it, making training and learning more difficult and costly, and ultimately compromising the effectiveness of the system in the first place
  • One system in Australia has 236 separate fields with which to store information (Philip highlights that we can create a field for anything - so sometimes we do!). However, aggregating data from this system is not positive. Apparently there were only 6 aboriginal children in care at one point in time. Data on children with disabilities was not available either - it is reported that around 50% of children in case are diagnosed with some form of physical or mental disability.
  • A pro-technology vibe is often based on unsupported statements for the benefits of technology. It should come down to the fundamental ability to make a positive different.
  • Technology should not replace human interaction, either.

Ultimately, his recommendations for uses of technology in adoption are:

  • To spend less money on it!
  • Thinking about returns on investment
  • Think about why information systems are needed, why and who will be using them
  • Data collection should be structured and we should only record what we need
  • We need humans to deal with complexity and assist with uncertainty

It was refreshing to hear this. I believe (and so does Philip, I feel) that technology has a place and that it can be a positive one. I agree that we shouldn’t feel that technology deserves a place for its own sake. No doubt it will be there - we should let adoptees inform the process and we should be cost effective with investments. But we should still invest - I have heard enough from the sector that technology is an untapped resource.

I also asked Philip about story collection for adolescents using technology. He wondered if this was about making this easier for researchers, rather than young people.

Why can’t it be both?

DR PATRICIA FRONECK - Senior Lecturer, School of Human Services and Social Work at Griffith University, Queensland

Dr Patricia Fronek is Senior Lecturer in the School of Human Services and Social Work, Gold Coast Campus, Griffith University and a member of the Population and Social Health Research Program (PSHRP). She has over 30 years of experience that spans across several practice domains, including health, disabilities and family formations specifically, adoption and surrogacy.

Tricia spoke positively about technology. Where there is bureaucracy and procedure (sometimes compounded by technology; see Philip Gillingham), technology can be a tool for efficiency. Technology is alive and communities are actively using it for lobbying and mutual support. 

She acknowledges a phobia of technology - certainly in older generations. A shift may occur naturally in the affinity for technology in child welfare. 

I asked her about Podsocs, a technology I’ve references on this website and that she created and produced. It started as she was tired of social workers being misrepresented and isolated to certain forms of media. It also allows busy professionals to tap into research themes and ideas more easily, rather than read lengthy reports. Podsocs only came about as a result of her tenacity and willingness to learn about the technology as she went. She received no support to do so. I think this story is a good example of the need for inventiveness and creativity when it comes to trying new ideas and making them successful. The website looks great, is accessible and offers a nice insight into the sector.

Patricia would like to see post-adoption support and the provisional of accurate information for adoptees be outputs of technological investment in adoption.

PROFESSOR CATHY HUMPHREYS - Professor of Social Work at the University of Melbourne

Cathy has a rich history in child protection, as a practitioner for 16 years, an academic in the UK for 12 years before returning to Australia.

Two projects in particular demonstrate a willingness to embrace technology; 

findandconnect.gov.au

An online resource for those interested in child welfare histories. It allows people to search a detailed database of child homes and related services for people looking to track down information about their past. Though the solution itself would be less relevant for the UK, with a history of open adoptions (though there is still a demand for tracing family histories), the way in which this resource was created is interesting. It is a collaboration between historians, social workers and specialist digital archivists, who used an existing database to bring together a live system of information. This holistic collaboration has created a simple yet effective service dealing with a critical need in adoption in Australia.

If speeding up adoption is a priority policy in the UK - and among many things,  a lack of adoptive parents another (see http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/jul/05/councils-30m-fund-speed-up-adoption-searches), then a similar system - developed collaboratively by skilled experts and stakeholders - might be a useful system to consider in order to meet both demands.

ESAFE RELATIONSHIPS

Cathy also introduced me to eSafe Relationships, a forum of organisations using technology to prevent and respond to violence against women and their children.

Though not directly related to adoption, it was really interesting to hear about technology being addresses so specifically. The day-long meet asks questions such as how could you see the existing technology being integrated into your work?; What technology interventions are most needed? How do we make it happen and how can it be sustainable?; Does technology do more harm than good?

These questions remind me of an Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills) questionnaire sent to various contacts in the adoption industry. It’s core question:  ‘How do you think Ofsted could use technology better to improve regulation and inspection for you?’). I have asked Ofsted if I can receive some of the responses, perhaps in return for some volunteering.

It also gave me the idea to create my own survey for the adoption industry to help inform this research.

Technologies include websites for story sharing (similar to I’m Adopted) and apps for helping women make decisions about how to deal with dangerous situations safely.

I have asked Cathy to keep me updated on this.

We ended our meeting with a valuable discussion about access. Access to technology for vulnerable people cannot always be guaranteed. This increases the chances of social and intellectual isolation. Making sure that technology is accessible will be an important part of future initiatives (as is tech literacy)