Vol. 22, No. 2, July 18, 2002

Illinois caseworkers now have information they need online

Craig Chamberlain, Education Editor
(217) 333-2894; cdchambe@illinois.edu


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The stack of pages stands as tall as the person who has to use it. It's everything a child welfare worker in Illinois needs to know or reference, and it's always changing, with each new rule, procedure, law, etc.

Soon, however, those thousands of pages may be gathering dust in many offices. Illinois' child welfare workers, dealing with an estimated 100,000 children in both state and private agencies, now have an electronic "help" manual at their fingertips. It's available online or on CD-ROM, easily searchable, and always up-to-date. It also may be the first resource of its kind in any state.

The new DCFS Web Resource, officially introduced last month, resulted from two very different sources of assistance at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, both working in collaboration with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

Social work expertise came from the university's Children and Family Research Center (CFRC), in the School of Social Work. Information technology expertise came from the Prairienet Community Network, an outreach service of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. DCFS provided input through administrators and through focus groups of frontline caseworkers and investigators.

Central to this technological solution is the concept of single-source publishing and the automation of the Web site production process, says Michelle Kessler, a CFRC research specialist and the project's coordinator. When DCFS staff make changes to master documents, the entire Web site, containing thousands of pages, in regular and text-only versions, can be updated at the click of a button.

The Web site then can be compiled into a format for writing to CD, for use by caseworkers and investigators with either limited Internet access or using notebook computers, Kessler said.

Making it all easy to update was "critical," said John Poertner, the CFRC's director and interim dean of the School of Social Work, "because the information changes weekly, changes daily." On the Web site, those changes can be made at least weekly, and new CDs can be distributed at least monthly. Child welfare workers can be more efficient with their time and more confident they have the latest information, in order to better assure children have safe and permanent homes, he said.

Prairienet brought to the project its years of experience consulting with community non-profits and social service agencies, and a strong client-centered philosophy, according to Karen Fletcher, Prairienet's manager of community information resources and the project's technical manager. "Because we work so closely with the organization, we try to get them to drive the process as much as possible, so that by the time we're done, they really feel fully invested," and can move toward managing it all themselves, Fletcher said.

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