Why Don’t We Know What We Don’t Know

Kelli Caseman, Executive Director

I was sitting in a committee meeting at the legislature last week when a colleague named Joe—a social worker at a local community health center—asked me if I knew whether the number of children removed from the home by the state, in any given month and county, was publicly reported.

My answer was “no.” I’m asked questions like these often, and the answer is usually “no.”

Yes, this information is meaningful to know, and no, while it may be data that is collected, it’s not publicly shared. While the consequences of the opioid epidemic made caring for affected children more and more difficult, we’ve done little to address our state’s inability to collect and share meaningful data that can help us address the challenges these kids face.

And it’s not just specific data sets. Across the spectrum, we’re lacking information that informs how we— from the state to community levels—respond to their needs. For example, we don’t know how many pediatric behavioral health providers we have in the state, where they are located, if they have a waiting list, and if they will treat patients insured by Medicaid. We don’t know if they are connected to their local school systems in some capacity. We don’t know if these local schools have adopted trauma-informed policies, provide counseling on-site, and we don’t know if the schools refer children to local providers. Nobody is assessing and sharing information, let alone the efficacy of services provided, and if these services are meeting the needs of kids in their communities.

It’s at moments like these—when a situation becomes a crisis—when you realize the importance of evidence-based policy. Especially in West Virginia, where we have few resources, we want our government to ensure that taxpayer-funded programs are effective.

 Without data, what do we base our decisions on? How do legislators decide what programs or services deserve funding? Folks like me often recommend ideas to policymakers, but what makes our ideas more credible than others?  Often associations and special interest groups have ideas, too—some more self-serving than others. And these folks often can afford lobbyists.

Legislative session will be over in a few weeks. After that, perhaps the smartest thing that advocates can do before next session is figure out what we need to know, and why we don’t know what we don’t know—meaning, where is the data and why isn’t it publicly available.

Lastly, I was sitting in a senator’s office last week, where she stated (again) that every group or organization working to address the needs of kids affected by the drug crisis has their own map of services, their own missions, and to her, it sounds like we’re all trying to do the same things, duplicating efforts and wasting resources.

She’s right.

We can fix that by collecting and sharing our data, and we should do this in preparation for next legislative session.