What is the importance of community factors to public administrators in the child welfare system? How might different protective or risk factors influence the outcome of youth in care at various decision points? Just how will a Graduate Certificate in Geographic Information Systems help those in public affairs think spatially about social challenges like the relationship between a child, their family, and the greater community?
Community conditions play an important role in understanding the likelihood of positive and negative outcomes for children and families. Rates of investigative reports, protective custodies, indicated reports, and post-investigation provisions can all be influenced by community risk or protective factors! For example, the concentration of poverty and criminal activity in communities can be associated with disparities in exposure to child maltreatment. In the State of Illinois, the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) may find that these community contexts vary widely – within the City of Chicago, between Illinois counties, and within sub-regions, such as Southern Illinois.
Technical training in GIS allows public administrators to visually interpret data to understand better relationships, patterns, and trends that may have been missed in a traditional spreadsheet or briefing paper. There can be a substantial difference between a tabulated spreadsheet of youth in care by county and a choropleth county-level map of youth in care.
In this visualization, I transform publicly available tabulations (Figure 1) from DCFS into more meaningful figures that show the distribution of youth in care across the State of Illinois. In Figure 2, we see that the highest concentration of youth in care is in urban areas of the state: Chicago, Rockford, Peoria, Springfield, Decatur, Champaign-Urbana, and East St. Louis Metro.
When we control for the number of youths under 18, we see a higher proportion of youth in care in rural counties like Mason, Christian, Marion, Jefferson, and Massac. Figure 3 shows this heavy representation of downstate communities in the child welfare system. For every 1,000 youth in Marion County, 24.886 youth are in foster care. In comparison, for every 1,000 youth in Kane County, 2.538 youth are in foster care.
There is pleasant as well as unfortunate news in Figure 3. The good news is that while Kane County has a high count of youth in care, they also have many uninvolved families with DCFS. The implicit count of uninvolved families in Kane County is high. For Marion County, though, the implicit count is relatively lower. There is a greater proportion of DCFS-involved families in the explicit group. This difference may be attributable to a higher concentration of poverty and underemployment, as well as a low density of early intervention services and geographic challenges in retaining a child welfare workforce.
The reveal of this difference in the size of implicit groups is much different from the story told by Figures 1 and 2. Further, it is a story contextualized by economic decline, as well as social and historical processes we already know have plagued community vitality in rural Illinois. The questions that we ask as public leaders and the answers we find differ based on the technical skills at our disposal. GIS is one of those technical skills, allowing us to elevate community voices.
During my time with DCFS, I worked with Dr. Robin LaSota, Director of Translational Research, to contemplate how state leadership may think of actors in the child welfare system as embedded within different community contexts. We used spatial econometrics to estimate substitute care entry related to socioeconomic and demographic characteristics found in federal and state administrative data. This concept introduced new questions for leadership, such as how reports under the Illinois Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) might trigger a surge in the allocation of resources to that community.
Geographic Information Systems can also assist child welfare agencies in identifying potential gaps in services before they lead to adverse outcomes. In partnership with Northwestern University, the Service Provider Identification & Exploration Resource (SPIDER) application helps welfare service providers locate public services—i.e., family advocacy, counseling, housing assistance. When those on the ground can access this information, it allows agencies to visualize resources and foster productive relationships to benefit the youth in care.
These are just two examples, as the possibilities of GIS in the child welfare system are truly endless. Public administrators could use hot spot analysis to determine where additional human capital investment is necessary. External evaluators may use network analysis to determine the distance from children’s homes of origin to their placements. Communications professionals may use a bivariate map to prioritize advertising where there is high substitute care entry but a low number of foster families to provide a loving home.
As a sociologist, I study individual lives, behaviors, and interactions within a broader structure of social and political forces. One of the most significant decisions I made for my career was pursuing the Graduate Certificate in Geographic Information Systems with the Department of Environmental Studies. This 12-hour program (three classes) gave me the necessary technical skills to empirically communicate how these relationships manifest in lived lives across the State of Illinois.
Social problems exist within space and time. Whether it involves child welfare, education, public health, or commerce, we limit administrative decision-making when considering communities as monolithic structures. There are notable forces at play in Illinois’ communities that are overlooked by aspatial hypotheses.
The pursuit of a Graduate Certificate in Geographic Information Systems provides you with the opportunity to think about these social challenges spatially. Furthermore, you now have the toolkit to lead and show these relationships to others!
Michael C. Lotspeich-Yadao, Ph.D., completed a Graduate Certificate in Geographic Information Systems (Environmental Studies) and Minor in Political Science with the College of Public Affairs and Administration in 2016. They currently serve as Assistant Director for Research and Educational Programming at the Chez Veteran Center, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Their research portfolio centers on rural military veterans’ education, employment, and entrepreneurship pathways.