Nation, World + Society

UCLA professor connects L.A. social workers and service providers through new website

'Needs Portal' enables caseworkers to find community agencies that are available to help families with urgent needs

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Teen line and Needs Portal
David Sprague/UCLA

Social welfare doctoral candidates Kristina Lovato-Hermann (second from left) and Marquitta Dorsey (second from right) demonstrate the Needs Portal to these staff members at Teen Line.

UCLA’s Bridget Freisthler isn’t exaggerating when she says mischievously: “I don’t pick the easy stuff, because then I would have time to sleep.”

Her latest project at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs is a monster of a job with a task list that seems to grow just as quickly as she can check off the boxes. The associate professor of social work is helping families, whose children are being or have been removed by child protective services because of child abuse or neglect, get the urgent assistance they need — whether it’s counseling, parenting classes or substance abuse treatment — to reduce the amount of time their children have to spend in foster care.

For the past year, Freisthler and her team of dedicated doctoral students at UCLA have been working to develop the Needs Portal, a web-based program for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) that enables caseworkers to find out in real time which community agencies are available to help families whose children have already been or are on the verge of being removed from their homes.

It’s a digital solution to the age-old dilemma for DCFS workers who must, for example, find parenting classes for such families without knowing which community agencies have the capacity to provide those services.

To find such services using the printed handbooks that are available could take hours as caseworkers call around, depending largely on their own Rolodexes and personal contacts. Agencies could have closed down and newer ones could have formed, but there is no way of knowing this quickly. Finding an agency within reach is also a challenge for families with limited transportation.

But the Needs Portal, developed by Freisthler and her team in collaboration with Rosa Tang and Howard Kunitz at the DCFS Torrance Regional Office and supported by the Parsons Foundation and California Social Work Education Center, allows DCFS caseworkers to submit a request via a secure website, which then matches the services required with a list of community agencies. The agencies can then respond quickly if they can provide some or all of what’s needed.

Families are also provided with that same list of community agencies and can make their own choices, based on recommendations and location, Freisthler explained.

Bridget Freisthler

To build the website and make it workable, Freisthler’s team started working in June 2013 with the DCFS Torrance Regional Office. After instructing caseworkers on how to use the website, the team trained representatives from 100 community agencies spread across 12 cities on how to set up a profile, describe the services they provide, check the database to see if any requests have come in and respond to those requests.

One sizable challenge was to convince caseworkers, who suffer from what Freisthler calls “intervention fatigue,” that this new tool would work.

“Everyone knows the current method of finding services doesn’t work efficiently, and everyone tries to say this is the next best thing,” said the UCLA faculty member. “So a lot of this is a salesman job, and we try to be really responsive to every need the agencies and caseworkers have while they are using it.”

That has meant a lot of discussion, evaluation and work with programmers to constantly revise the site.

Based on feedback so far, caseworkers are finding out about agencies they didn’t know existed, agencies are gaining access to people they hope to serve and families are getting real-time access to services they desperately need.

In one instance, a caseworker said in an evaluation report, a family with three children at risk of being placed in foster care had an older daughter in her 20s who could take them. But she lacked the money to buy beds for them.

After the caseworker placed a request on the portal for help, a faith-based agency responded and delivered bunk beds to the home. “Without these beds, we would not have been able to make the placement happen and would have had to place the kids in foster care,” the caseworker said. “This was a big deal because trying to locate beds is something that we all struggle to locate quickly. From then on, I was hooked on using the Portal.”

Another caseworker found 10 new agencies through the portal “that I never knew existed … I thought I knew most of the agencies out there; so this surprised me!”

Counselors at community agencies called the Needs Portal “a new way of doing social work.” “It streamlines the referral process, so now all I have to do is go online, respond to a social worker’s service request and wait for a response back,” one counselor noted. “It’s easy to use and will have a lot of potential for referring many clients to our agency.”

Buoyed by this success, Freisthler’s team is currently working on expanding the Needs Portal to cities in the South County Regional Office, which serves Long Beach and the surrounding area; a small pilot group of caseworkers there began using the Needs Portal last May.

If everything goes well, the Needs Portal will hopefully make its way across the rest of Los Angeles County, Freisthler said.

She’s also working with the Department of Mental Health and other agencies that are bound by confidentiality requirements so that they too can participate. In the development stage are criteria for screening community agencies — a minimum set of requirements that agencies will need to meet in order to participate. And there are plans to develop a mobile app for the DCFS workers who are slated to get smartphones later this year.

So what will happen when all the kinks are worked out in Freisthler’s “monster” project?

Freisthler has a quick answer. “Let DCFS have it if it works in linking families to services more quickly,” she said, “and use it as a model for other places.”

This story was adapted from one that appears in the Luskin Forum, the bi-annual magazine of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

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