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image: Campus NewsAltruism plugged: technology and social work
It didn't quite make headlines, but as of this May the HelpWorks software system was up and running at 9/11 United Services Group (USG), the umbrella charity organization that coordinates relief efforts for victims of the World Trade Center attacks.

USG's 200 New York City employees use the system to search a database of several hundred charitable organizations, matching available benefits with each client. The group serves anyone directly affected by the terrorist attacks: the owner of a devastated lower-Manhattan small business seeking financial advice in her native Cantonese, the deceased victim's son hoping to attend a wheelchair-accessible summer camp, the low-wage worker from the north tower whose unemployment benefits just ran out.

The software was donated by Peter Martin Associates (PMA), a Chicago-based, social-services technology firm founded by Ed Hamlin, AB'81, whose 30-person staff includes two School of Social Service Administration alumni.

"We knew from the start that we had something that could help New York," says Hamlin. The software is well suited for dealing with the attacks-or any catastrophe-he says, "because it's quickly configurable." PMA began offering its services in late September; after USG was established in December, PMA consultants helped the group set parameters for who may request support and eligibility levels. That information was tied to a ballooning database of organizations offering benefits.

Such a rapid, adaptable software installation is emblematic of a change slowly occurring in the nation's social-services organizations, better known for a dedication to the downtrodden than spreadsheet savvy. The 1990s technology wave, says Hamlin, has finally seeped into human services. Besides private, nonprofit-not to mention high-profile and well-funded-organizations such as USG, it's also reached government agencies notorious for deluges of forms in triplicate.

As states move to comply with welfare reforms enacted in 1996, they need a way to streamline and coordinate rag-tag social-services agencies, better track their clients' progress, and make decisions more quickly and efficiently. In chronically understaffed, budget-tight environments, such software systems may be indispensable.

"Turnover rates are particularly high for social-work clinicians and especially for those in child welfare," says Hamlin. "There are high vacancy rates, high burnout rates because of high caseloads and levels of emotional stress, and lots of clinicians who haven't been on the job for long." As a result, "the wheel is being reinvented every time a child-welfare worker leaves and someone, months or a year later, takes that place." The goal of social-services software systems, he says, is to "design clinical expertise into the database, to allow more experienced clinicians to guide new ones."

To those who shudder at the thought of a former WTC employee being refused job training-or a child being taken away from his parents-based on a series of possibly erroneous selections on pull-down menus, he counters: "No one makes clinical decisions based on software. This is a support system, a memory jogger, for clinicians who are trained to-and do-make decisions based entirely on their own judgment."

Meanwhile the slow trickle of technology into human-service agencies has barely reached the schools that train social workers. At the National Conference on Career Development and Social Work Education, held this June at the SSA, career counselors in the Technology in Social Work session admitted they've only recently realized that technology skills might help students land jobs in the currently tight market.

Anna Minkov, AM'98, the Peter Martin project manager leading the session, said it's become "my personal goal to turn all the technophobes" in the social-work field into clinicians and agency managers unafraid to use their analytical skills to help construct software systems that, ultimately, will make inherently tough jobs somewhat easier. "Agencies already have I.T. people," she said. "What they need are handholders-social workers who understand the policies and the laws and the day-to-day of casework and who can help steer the software systems.

"This kind of thinking," she continued, "is definitely not in the mainstream, but it's there"-at New York's USG; in Clay County, Minnesota; in the State of Mississippi's social-service offices. "But it takes more than one agency to move this mountain."




  AUGUST 2002

  > > Volume 94, Number 6

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Teachable moments
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Great men of Great Books
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Business of Reflection

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