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How Digital Data Can Help Safeguard the World’s Most Vulnerable Children

Molly Cannon's picture

Blog by Molly Cannon, Stuardo Herrera, and Ismael Ddumba-Nyanzi, Palladium
This blog originally appeared on Palladium Catalyze and is reposted with permission.

Members of the Data for Impact team reflect on how data and a case management information system can help social services, case managers, guardianship authorities, service providers and ministries manage data on children-at-risk and safeguard their welfare.

Members of the data impact team meet in UgandaMeet Elias, 13-year-old boy living in Mbale District, Uganda. His father died when he was just two years old. He had a learning disability and received support at the local school, but six years later, struggling to meet his most basic needs, his mother placed him in a residential care institution or ‘orphanage’ in a different district. This was a devastating and difficult decision for both mother and son, and Elias struggled for the next three years with an untreated learning disability that led to behavioural issues.

When the orphanage closed down, Elias immediately returned home. His mother had remarried and Elias’ behavioural problems became more severe. His new stepfather was abusive, pushing Elias to run away from home, and was eventually picked up by a local organisation that provides support to children living on the street and helps them return to family members. But unfortunately for Elias, caseworkers’ efforts to trace his family have so far proved futile and he remains in the system.

A Common Problem Across the World

Elias’ situation isn’t an unusual one, but with the right system in place, it could be avoided altogether. There are approximately 50,000 children living in an estimated 500 residential institutions in Uganda. Many of these institutions are unregistered and operate with little to no government oversight. Perhaps more startling is the fact that more than two-thirds of the children living in institutional homes in Uganda have a living parent. With the right support, they could return to their birth parents.

According to the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care for Children, the removal of a child from the family must be a measure of last resort, and whenever possible, be temporary and for the shortest possible duration. The guideline adds that poverty should never be the only justification for the removal of a child, and if a child is separated, the ultimate goal should be to reunify the child with family.

To protect the child’s best interests, the reunification process needs to be carefully planned and managed, with effective and sustained family preparation, strengthening, monitoring, and other support to ensure the child isn’t left in a more vulnerable situation than where they started.

How Data Could Have Helped

The UN Guidelines also explicitly indicate that the State is responsible for developing, implementing, and coordinating policies on care for all children without parental care, and those policies should be based on sound information and statistical data. This data, when properly implemented in a larger system, can be crucial for helping caseworkers and others to better support children like Elias and his family.

Many countries rely on paper-based or aggregated data for reporting purposes and don’t have ways to address some of the urgent issues children face. A well-designed, digitised, web-based platform can help social services, case managers, guardianship authorities, service providers and ministries manage data on children-at-risk, with tools that facilitate case management and longitudinal tracking, and integrating information from different agencies that manage child protection data.

Data, when properly implemented, can be crucial for helping caseworkers to better support children like Elias.

Ideally, this digitised case management information system (CMIS) would streamline and integrate vertical data from the community up to the district and national levels and facilitate horizontal integration of data across services. It could have provided valuable information to caseworkers to help Elias and his mother at various points in time, through having: 

  • Prevented Elias’ separation in the first place. If the community or district had a way to identify families in need, they could have ensured more financial support through vouchers, support finding a job, etc. to his mother so she could keep him at home.
  • Ensured Elias fared well at the residential care institution. Even if Elias ended up in the institution, a case management information system with information about his medical and educational background could have ensured that information about his learning disability was available to the social workers so they could have ensured he had the right services and support.
  • Shortened Elias’ stay in residential care. If the state had a way to monitor the length of time Elias and other children were in residential care, they could have intervened earlier to provide support to his family for the reunification.
  • Ensured Elias’ return home was successful and prevented his running away. The process of reunification could take up to a year if done properly. If the state had a way to monitor how prepared. the child and the family was for his return, they could have provided the necessary counseling services to promote proper reunification. If they could have monitored how Elias was faring upon his return home, they could have identified the problem earlier and intervened.
  • Use of CMIS could support many other children in a similar situation. If national and international agencies had data and indicators to monitor the children’s situations, they could have set policies and tailored interventions to improve not only Elias’ life, but the lives of many children in Uganda. 

Current Status of Alternative Care for Children Data 

Ministries of Gender, Labour and Social Protection typically have the primary responsibility to care for and report on vulnerable children. Few countries have achieved a useful CMIS at scale, but there is a keen interest from service providers, governments, implementing partners and donors in achieving this. 

What would it take to implement this type of system successfully? Some of the key factors include: 

  • Common indicators, definitions and standard operating procedures for data collection to help children like Elias and their caseworkers. The system needs to track the right information and measure it consistently.
  • Routine data review. In some countries, data are reported only on an annual basis, meaning they are not actively using the data to improve efforts at addressing children’s needs. In Elias’ case, had the district had a monthly report on struggling children, they could have caught Elias’ unaddressed learning disability.
  • Complete reporting from all service providers, including unregistered residential institutions. In some countries like Uganda, many residential institutions operated by non-governmental organisations bypass registration processes and data for those children are not reported. In the case of Elias, if he were at a residential institution operated by an unregistered entity, the state would not have the ability to know anything about Elias.
  • Responsible data approaches. Safeguarding children and families’ private information is crucial and responsible approaches ensure that data is managed in a secure and ethical way, ensuring privacy and consent.
  • Country governance of the CMIS, including mechanisms for ownership and accountability, including intersectoral coordination and selection of the most appropriate digital platform given the country’s conditions.
  • The successful implementation and deployment of a CMIS depends on understanding the children’s true needs, working with case managers to understand their pains and incentives, and understanding of the local technology and capabilities. 

But when it’s in place, a functioning CMIS has the potential to generate data to monitor and address the needs of at-risk children and families, to avoid unnecessary separation, and to ensure appropriate placement in temporary alternative care and successful reunification of children with families.