Data­bank pro­posed to track child wel­fare

Mea­sure would re­quire state agen­cies to share in­for­ma­tion

Santa Fe New Mexican - - FRONT PAGE - By Cyn­thia Miller [email protected]­i­

Af­ter years of hand-wring­ing over worst-in-the-na­tion poverty lev­els and ed­u­ca­tion rank­ings, re­ports re­peat­edly declar­ing New Mex­ico “the worst place to raise a fam­ily,” a per­sis­tent opi­oid epi­demic and a ris­ing prison pop­u­la­tion, pol­i­cy­mak­ers are push­ing leg­is­la­tion they say will fi­nally lead to so­lu­tions.

With­out the Child and Fam­ily Data­bank Act, one re­searcher said, the state won’t ever be able to solve its woes, largely rooted in multi­gen­er­a­tional poverty.

Jef­frey Mitchell, di­rec­tor of the Univer­sity of New Mex­ico’s Bureau of Busi­ness and Eco­nomic Re­search, said it is now im­pos­si­ble for the state to iden­tify the res­i­dents most in need of ser­vices and to track whether in­ter­ven­tions are suc­cess­ful be­cause agen­cies are not shar­ing data and crunch­ing num­bers. The data­bank bill would change that. In a state with lim­ited re­sources, Mitchell said, “You should make in­vest­ments that you can val­i­date.”

The mea­sure, now work­ing its way through both cham­bers of the Leg­is­la­ture, would re­quire sev­eral state agen­cies to share his­tor­i­cal data for re­search, with a goal of de­vel­op­ing

ef­fec­tive pro­grams and poli­cies to help im­prove lives — and per­haps save lives.

A year af­ter au­thor­i­ties dis­cov­ered one of the state’s most hor­rific cases of fa­tal abuse, in which 13-year-old Jeremiah Va­len­cia was tor­tured to death near Nambé, of­fi­cials have said some ef­forts are un­der­way to re­pair a frac­tured child safety net that failed the boy. Jen­nifer Ramo, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the non­profit New Mex­ico Ap­ple­seed, which is propos­ing the data­bank ini­tia­tive, said it could pro­vide the ev­i­dence of­fi­cials need to ef­fec­tively strengthen child pro­tec­tion pro­cesses.

There are many other ap­pli­ca­tions for such cross-agency data shar­ing sys­tems, which are al­ready be­ing de­vel­oped in about three dozen states and coun­ties, Ramo said.

She and other ad­vo­cates of the data­bank mea­sure ar­gue it would al­low the state to trans­form what has be­come a frag­mented and costly so­cial ser­vices net­work, with lit­tle col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween agen­cies, over­lap in ser­vices and lack of ev­i­dence to prove pro­grams are work­ing.

“When it comes to so­cial ser­vices, we are op­er­at­ing in the dark,” Ramo said.

Al­bu­querque-based Ap­ple­seed, an or­ga­ni­za­tion with a mis­sion of fight­ing poverty through pol­icy im­prove­ments, has been work­ing on the ini­tia­tive for three years, she said. She calls the ef­fort an “on-ramp” to a bet­ter way of gov­ern­ing.

Den­nis Cul­hane, co-di­rec­tor of Ac­tion­able In­tel­li­gence for So­cial Pol­icy at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia, which helps state and lo­cal gov­ern­ments launch data-shar­ing sys­tems, said they lead to “bet­ter, smarter, faster govern­ment.”

A cou­ple of states that re­cently be­gan the process were prompted by opi­oid crises, Cul­hane said. “You have a pub­lic health emer­gency,” he said, but no means to “get the data shared and to re­act.”

State Sen. Car­los Cis­neros, a Questa Demo­crat who in­tro­duced the Sen­ate ver­sion of the data­bank act, said, “I think it’s long over­due.”

Two iden­ti­cal bills, Cis­neros’ Sen­ate Bill 202 and Rep. An­to­nio “Moe” Maes­tas’ House Bill 173, would cre­ate an in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sion to over­see the data sys­tem and analy­ses of the in­for­ma­tion, to en­sure in­di­vid­ual records re­main con­fi­den­tial and that re­search projects are held to a high stan­dard of ethics.

The agen­cies shar­ing data through the sys­tem would be the Depart­ment of Health, the Hu­man Ser­vices Depart­ment, the Chil­dren, Youth and Fam­i­lies Depart­ment, the Pub­lic Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment, the Cor­rec­tions Depart­ment, the Ad­min­is­tra­tive Of­fice of the Courts and the New Mex­ico Sen­tenc­ing Com­mis­sion.

The mea­sures would al­low the com­mis­sion to charge fees to out­side or­ga­ni­za­tions that re­quest data sets and re­ports.

The bills call for a small staff of data an­a­lysts and data sci­en­tists, a hand­ful of work­ers at the Depart­ment of Health to

ad­min­is­ter the data­bank and an ap­pro­pri­a­tion of about $1.9 mil­lion a year.

Ad­vo­cates say it would save the state far more.

Ramo’s or­ga­ni­za­tion es­ti­mates the state spends $900 mil­lion a year pro­vid­ing ser­vices to 16,000 fam­i­lies with the high­est needs.

“And they are not see­ing the out­comes,” Ramo said. “We be­lieve that is be­cause we are not us­ing data to bet­ter in­form our­selves about who needs ser­vices, what ser­vices they need and are getting, and do any of those ser­vices work.”

Each ver­sion of the data­bank bill has cleared its first leg­isla­tive com­mit­tee with wide sup­port.

A fis­cal im­pact re­port cites pos­si­ble ben­e­fits of the ini­tia­tive — in par­tic­u­lar, the abil­ity to track pro­gram out­comes — and points to other in­te­grated data projects in the state that have been largely un­suc­cess­ful.

The ef­fort has sup­port from Gov. Michelle Lu­jan Gr­isham, said spokesman Tripp Stel­nicki. “The gover­nor ab­so­lutely sup­ports the con­cept and is open to sup­port­ing a fi­nal ver­sion of the bill as leg­is­la­tors work through the process.”

But some agency lead­ers have been quiet about the mea­sure.

Chil­dren, Youth and Fam­i­lies Sec­re­tary Brian Blalock de­clined to com­ment on the leg­is­la­tion, say­ing the depart­ment’s po­si­tion “is still in process” with the Gover­nor’s Of­fice.

David Mor­gan, a spokesman at the Depart­ment of Health, said in an email that the agency “sup­ports the con­cept of the bill but not as drafted cur­rently. We are open to sup­port­ing it af­ter changes are made.”

He did not re­spond to an in­quiry about which spe­cific changes the depart­ment was re­quest­ing.

The state wouldn’t see im­me­di­ate re­sults from the data­bank. Along with eth­i­cal is­sues to ad­dress, there are tech­ni­cal and le­gal con­cerns to nav­i­gate, in­clud­ing pri­vacy laws, Cul­hane said.

It takes 18 months to two years to set up data-shar­ing agree­ments among state agen­cies, to build a sys­tem for col­lect­ing data and to be­gin an­a­lyz­ing the in­for­ma­tion, he said.

“It’s te­dious and it’s painstak­ing and it’s slow,” Ramo said, “but this is the only way to do this.”

She sees the data­bank as a cul­tural change in state govern­ment that would af­fect op­er­a­tions for decades to come. And it’s just good sci­ence, she said.

“Right now, we spend — the world spends — all this money on do­ing sci­ence, us­ing sci­ence for our iPads, us­ing sci­ence for our face cream, us­ing sci­ence for our cars,” Ramo said. “And yet the way we do so­cial pol­icy is based on hunches and dogma and re­ally not us­ing data sci­ence in the way that we could.”


Jeremiah Va­len­cia died at 13 af­ter be­ing tor­tured and abused. Of­fi­cials say he was failed by the state’s child safety net.

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