Do we really know our kids well enough to serve them well? If not, how do we build local partnerships and systems that make it possible to share sensitive and confidential information about young people while still protecting the privacy rights of parents and children?

By Jack Calhoun.

Over the course of four decades working to keep young people safe and helping them to thrive, I’ve learned that nothing is more important than seeing the entire picture.

If a child is disruptive in school, her teachers and the school social worker may only know that the child has a discipline problem that needs to be addressed. They may not know that she suffered abuse at the hands of an “uncle” for several years (information held by child protective services), that her father is in prison (information held by the court or probation), or that her brother was shot on the street a few weeks earlier (information held by the police).

nutter-pull-quoteSimilarly, if a youth is charged with a juvenile offense, her probation officer may see a requirement of school attendance as in her best interests. What that officer may not know is that her learning disabilities make school a place of personal shame and pain rather than a place where she feels she can get her life back on track.

The stakes can be frighteningly high. I’ll never forget listening to Michael Nutter, mayor of Philadelphia, as he framed the challenge of data-sharing as a matter of life and death. “Look,” he said, “we’re often faced with situations where we know a youth is about to kill or be killed, and we have to rethink all the data and legal issues, because this is not a legal or technical issue. We’re talking about saving lives. Data-sharing is a moral issue!”

For parents seeking help for their children, “the confusion can be overwhelming,” says Dan Kelly, director of planning for San Francisco’s Human Services Agency. “Every mother and father, no matter how troubled, wants their child to have a better life. To see a child struggling in school or in the community and know that help is available but difficult to find because the systems providing it are scattered and disorganized — that must be profoundly frustrating.”

Most importantly, danger signals are not shared. As a result, youth — many of whom might have been diverted from trouble or harm — are not identified early on as being at extreme risk. Andrew Wong, an expert in data-sharing strategies who analyzed youth data used by the City of San Francisco, concluded that those served by multiple systems were at increased risk of committing a serious crime; over half of young people in the city that are involved in multiple service systems have been convicted of, or have been the victim of, a serious crime.

The City and County of San Francisco (a consolidated unit of local government) is at the vanguard of efforts to overcome these barriers. Its Shared Youth Database, a product of more than a decade of arduous work and cross-agency negotiations, balances the need to improve outcomes for clients and increase efficiency of operations while protecting the privacy of families and children.

A formal memorandum of understanding (MOU) ensures compliance with legal requirements regarding confidentiality of data and allows the departments of public health, child welfare and juvenile probation to pool information in a secure database.

The MOU has transformed how the city responds to children and families in need. For example, a child protective services worker can now find out if a child in an emergency situation has a probation officer or a psychiatrist who should be involved in a response plan.

Trish Rudden, a child welfare supervisor in San Francisco’s Human Services Agency, brings home the critical importance of the city’s data-sharing efforts: “Without the Shared Youth Database, child welfare workers have to rely on an archaic system of communication, often based on the foster parents themselves. They don’t find out if a child is missing his appointments until a negative pattern sets in.”

To learn more about San Francisco’s Shared Youth Database and the challenges that city leaders overcame to put it in place, read my article on NLC’s website, The Case for Data-Sharing: San Francisco’s Shared Youth Database. 

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Originally posted at Cities Speak.