October 29, 2021

Public agencies increasingly rely on the power of data and information technology (IT) to help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of public services. But they often struggle to compete with the private sector for well-trained IT talent. At the same time, students who are historically underserved in higher education continue to be critically underrepresented in the tech sector. 

The University of Washington School of Social Work and the UW Information School are partnering with a public agency—Washington state’s Department of Children, Youth & Families (DCYF)—to create a new IT educational pathway for a diverse cohort of students with IT interests who are also deeply committed to meeting the needs of children and families who are involved in or are at risk of being involved in the public child welfare system. 

The School of Social Work and DCYF are also taking the unprecedented step of tapping an existing source of uncapped federal child welfare funding—Title IV-E of the Social Security Act—to cover $2 million in annual costs for student tuition and curriculum development for the new program, which is planned to launch in the autumn quarter of 2022. 

The use of IV-E funding will allow the program to offer a debt-free or substantially debt-reduced IT education pathway to students who commit to working, post-graduation, in DCYF-approved IT roles for a minimum of three years. The program will focus recruitment on a very capable, committed, diverse cohort of students who might otherwise lack access to a high-quality tech education. At the same time, it will address the system’s ongoing need for diverse, highly skilled IT professionals who are committed to putting the needs of children and families first.  

The two schools, with input from DCYF, will collaborate to design an innovative, equity-framed IT curriculum that meets the needs of child welfare practitioners and the families they serve. The curriculum will speak to current calls for tech education programs to help students better understand how technology and technology-mediated practice reflect the power asymmetries and inequities of the social systems in which they are embedded—and to teach skills and competencies to develop sociotechnical solutions to existing problems.  

The program builds on DCYF’s practice of hiring people with social work or human services backgrounds for IT positions; all partners agree that the social justice and child- and family-centered worldview that social workers bring is essential to the future of IT in human services. 

“The appropriate use of a federal entitlement to meet critical technological needs in public child welfare agencies, while also creating debt-free educational opportunities for underserved communities, is a creative solution to a persistent problem faced by child welfare agencies across the country,” says Ben de Haan, the School of Social Work’s associate dean for social service innovation and partnerships. “We believe the new program may serve as a model for other social work programs and child welfare systems nationwide.”

The new program will create both classroom- and field-based education, including opportunities to participate in designing and maintaining sophisticated, fairness-corrected data systems that accurately reflect the diverse needs of families who interact with the public child welfare system. In addition to content on ethics in child welfare information systems, areas of concentration will include data science, technical product management, software engineering, business analysis and data visualization for policy and program planning.