Banita Jacks and her daughters fell through many cracks in the maze of government-funded human services in the District of Columbia.

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Helping the Homeless: A Customer-Centric Approach with CRM Software

Banita Jacks and her daughters fell through many cracks in the maze of government-funded human services in the District of Columbia. Jacks sought help at least 23 times from 11 different agencies, but their separate information systems made it difficult for any of them to obtain a complete understanding of the family’s desperate plight. Federal marshals finally visited their row house, where the mother had been living with her dead daughters’ bodies for more than 7 months. At her trial, Jacks claimed the children were possessed by demons, and she is now serving a 120-year prison sentence. The poorly integrated systems left giant information gaps that hampered agencies trying to help. For example, Child and Family Services received an anonymous hotline tip that the mother must be neglecting the girls, but since the agency didn’t have any home address, no caseworker followed up. Other agencies had an address, but their systems didn’t track the complaint. Teachers at the girls’ school attempted unsuccessfully to contact the family when they were absent, but they knew nothing about the neglect charge. Information wasn’t shared, and service workers who handled the family’s requests rarely followed up. Although this tragic case led to investigations and a round of firings, the real problem was in the information systems. Agency directors want to transform the way these systems work by implementing an integrated information system to share data. The agencies need the same kind of customer-centric systems that private industries have when they install customer relationship management (CRM) software. In a financial institution, for example, employees in different departments might see individual events that could be warning signs pointing to a dissatisfied customer. The broker might know that the customer sold stocks and moved the funds to a cash account, or the retirement counselor might receive a call from the same customer, inquiring how to roll over an IRA. With an integrated system, these individual events will paint a picture so that company reps can follow up. Nevertheless, CRM efforts in human services agencies face different kinds of challenges compared to corporate CRM initiatives. First, lawmakers must approve the project and provide funding. A project of this magnitude could run $10 million or more, and city officials are reluctant to spend such a huge sum on IT when budgets for shelters are being cut, despite overcrowding. Another concern involves privacy. The Child and Family Services worker, for example, would need access to data on a family’s food stamps, disabilities, homelessness, health records, and schooling. Privacy advocates object to legislation that allows widespread access to so much personal information about children at risk and homeless families because it impinges on confidentiality. Striking a balance between privacy concerns and the desire to help these families is not easy. Medical records are legally protected, though knowledge about past history could help caseworkers identify problems. For example, one woman was treated for mental illness many times, but a caseworker who visited her home didn’t have that information. She reported no significant problems in parenting; a few weeks later, however, the troubled mother tried to drown her children. While confidentiality, privacy, and funding are challenges, resistance to change also contributes. Former DC Human Services Director Clarence Carter suggests that many people just want to keep doing what they do, because that’s how they’ve always done it. “We are hired and held accountable for the administration of programs, not for the well-being of individuals. That has got to change,” said Carter. Adopting a CRM approach that involves listening to the customers and adapting services to what they need will help.

 

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