Using administrative data to evaluate welfare reform presents challenges and opportunities within each of the domains of child well-being. Child abuse and neglect data generally are available to the evaluation of welfare reform because both child welfare records and TANF data sets typically reside within the same governmental department at the local and state levels. However, developing appropriate measures of child well-being from administrative child welfare requires intricate programming of longitudinal data files: understanding of the differences between the child's experience and the system performance indicators; expertise with a range of sophisticated analysis methods; and understanding of many interpretations that administrative data might allow. In contrast, health measures of child well- being--for example, birthweight or immunization completeness--are more uniformly defined and there is more agreement about their implications. However, these data are less available to study welfare reform because they typically reside within government entities separate from departments where welfare data reside. When these data sources differ, issues of compatibility of data formats and definitions, linking of data, confidentiality, and ownership of data files call for collaborative efforts to evaluate welfare reform. Evaluation of impacts within juvenile justice and education include particularly acute challenges of data availability, as well as the need to create valid and reliable measures.
The authors of this paper have endeavored to increase readers' familiarity with needed indicators of child well-being and the administrative data sets that contain them. A secondary goal has been to alert readers to the ways that existing policies hamper access to the data necessary to make informed decisions. Obtaining permission to use administrative data for evaluation purposes is harder than it needs to be. Without substantial convergence around the purposes of using administrative data, this emerging technology is going to be a partial, piecemeal, and ephemeral aid to government. The technical solutions for linking are increasing (storage is more affordable, processing times are shorter, and matching software is better), but public support has not been built to encourage this linking. Issues of data access and confidentiality present the greatest barriers to full utilization of this resource.
Although the federal government is demanding more accountability from the states, and the states from the counties, there is little outcry from public officials to permit the broader use of administrative data to generate the information required to track the performance of human service agencies. Scandinavian countries are generating invaluable research using linked data across generations to understand, for example, the transmission of schizophrenia across generations and the likelihood that children born with birth defects will give birth to children with birth defects. Similarly, program participation data have been combined with information from driving records, educational attainment, military service, and marriage certificates to understand lifetime outcomes of family recomposition and participation in service programs. Researcher access to administrative data is beneficial, and more open access will permit individuals to educate themselves about what is contained in such databases, to use the information within those databases to conduct research for multiple purposes, and to reassure the public about the feasibility of using already gathered information for the public good.
Concerns over confidentiality continue to present a major barrier to linking administrative data to evaluate the effects of welfare reform on child well-being. Perhaps nowhere is there as much sensitivity concerning privacy and confidentiality as with records containing information about vulnerable children and parents who have been accused of violating social norms by abusing or neglecting their children. At the same time, electronic availability of information on individuals permits sophisticated research that was simply impossible in the past. How do we reconcile the need to provide privacy and confidentiality to individual patients while enabling public health researchers and policy makers to use available information to make the best decisions?
Although privacy and confidentiality of records about children's well-being are important, we suggest there are already adequate protections, incentives and disincentives, and policies and procedures, to preserve individual privacy. We already trust millions of individuals in our society to respect the confidentiality of information they encounter each day in the human services, child welfare, health care, law enforcement, juvenile justice, and education sysem, to name a few. We trust the individuals conducting research within each of these systems to maintain the confidentiality of records. Most of these data are collected without any explicit discussion of whether or how they will be used for research that might inform administration of the program. Yet we have generated the expectation that individuals not working for those institutions who obtain data from them in order to advance services research through data linking represent a risk to the confidentiality concerns of service recipients. The expectation that there is likely to be even a minimal risk of mishandling data lacks an evidentiary base. In our 10 years of experience using administrative data of the most sensitive kinds (including child abuse reports and juvenile justice records), we know of no violations of individual rights of persons in those data sets. Nor do we have any stories to tell about exceptional procedures we instituted to prevent such misuse. The handling of that information was simply very routine. Perhaps we need a more systematic effort to determine what real and imagined threats to confidentiality exist in data-linking efforts. Until we have evidence to the contrary, we should continue to maintain databases with adequate identifying information to support future research projects, and we should advocate for change in unwisely broad legislative or regulatory language that adversely affects interorganizational research.
We believe it is appropriate and indeed necessary to maintain personal identifying information on public health and child well-being databases, and that those identifiers should be available to facilitate linkage of electronic health databases to support research to improve the health of our population as well as to enhance the health of individuals. At the same time, we emphasize that availability of such identifiers is quite different from license to invade the privacy of individuals or disregard the need for strict confidentiality of the information held within medical records. We believe it is possible to reconcile all these goals.
We need to encourage constant conversation between investigators specializing in administrative data and those designing surveys so that the surveys can be used to help inform the interpretation of the administrative data. Survey researchers generally are not familiar with the needs for researchers to be provided with data that have adequate variables for matching. For example, data that tell us about the reasons why clients change service use patterns can be combined with information from administrative data about how often and when these service use patterns change. Furthermore, we must develop better strategies for making survey data available for linking with administrative data. A serious threat to this possibility is the assumption that if it is possible for the confidentiality of a data set to be compromised, it will. This leads to counterproductive strategies such as making it impossible to accurately match samples to their communities or counties of origin (thus obviating the possibility of exploring neighborhood or county effects).
Whereas linked administrative data can provide important information on the impact of welfare reform on child well-being, it is not a panacea and will not provide us with all the information we need to monitor welfare reform. We must be wary of the conclusions we draw from linked data because we often cannot determine whether an individual did not experience the outcome, was recorded as experiencing the outcome but could not be matched across data systems (e.g., if they moved across jurisdictional lines), or experienced the outcome but was not recorded as such. Even when the data are accurate, at best they help us monitor who appears to be affected by welfare reform, when those impacts occur, and where the impact is greatest or least. Sometimes we do not even know the direction of that change. For example, if more children per capita are reported for abuse and neglect under TANF than were reported under JOBS, this could mean that the smaller TANF caseloads have resulted in more opportunities for home visiting and better early identification of child abuse and neglect. As to why welfare reform affects children and families differentially, administrative data can only guide us as to the best places to look for those answers. Carefully designed representative samples can be drawn and subjected to other methods (e.g., surveys) that can build on the framework that a comprehensive administrative data analysis provides.
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