Using Technology to Aid the Opioid Crisis' Innocent Victims

Victor Moussa/

Manual processes are holding back the way governments could support children and families in crisis.

Mark Forman, former U.S. Administrator for E-Government and Information Technology at the Office of Management and Budget, is global head of Public Sector at Unisys.

Denise Winkler, a senior engagement manager at Unisys, has served as an administrator and senior advisor to government health and human services systems in California, New York, Ohio and other states.

The morning headlines and nightly newscasts remind us every day of how persistent our nation’s opioid epidemic has become. More than 33,000 people overdosed from a prescription or illicit opioids in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That’s more than 90 people a day, with thousands of children caught in an already overwhelmed system over the past three years.

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Today’s technologies can help governments address this risk to children. The possibilities start from the moment a caseworker identifies substance abuse as a problem. While technology is already used for monitoring the prescription and dissemination of opioids and to collect and analyze abuse and overdose data, there is much untapped potential.

Why not an automated application and approval process? While an in-person home visit is necessary for final approval, the rest of the process could be automated, saving time and resources. The application could be completed online using a single authoritative database that eliminates the need to retype data on multiple forms. Required documentation could be uploaded via cellphone cameras. Digital signatures could authenticate identities, and electronic tools could be used for notifications, verifications and background checks.

Online tools have become a significant force in making successful marriages, according to the Pew Research Center. Similar technology could rapidly match a child to a family. Foster parents could stipulate the number of children they can house, as well as the age, gender, special needs and other characteristics they are willing to accept. Social workers wouldn’t have to spend hours on the phone in search of a good match; they would instead have a list of families who were willing and able to care for the child.

Foster parents would not be the only beneficiaries of improved technology. The opioid crisis has also spurred a large increase in kinship placements. About 2.5 million grandparents and other family or friends have stepped in because moms and dads are wrapped in the throes of addiction. But 21 percent of grandparents caring for grandchildren live below the poverty line, and 26 percent have a disability, according to a Generations United report. Governments, local social services agencies and volunteer groups could jointly create “care portals” that serve as one-stop shops for kin looking for everything from bunk beds to child care to winter boots. Suddenly, help is only a mouse click away.

It is estimated one-quarter of the 2.2 million child welfare cases involve substance abuse. The nation is filled with parents trying to get clean so they can either keep their family intact or regain custody of their children. Those parents are on “case plans” that require them to complete certain steps such as substance abuse treatment. Often, the casework—finding a treatment facility as quickly as possible, sharing information about the parent, reporting on the parent’s progress—is performed manually, either in person or over the phone. Many parents have to wait months for available treatment.

A database of treatment centers could help caseworkers identify open slots in a matter of minutes. An Indiana resident could be placed in a nearby Ohio facility, so he or she doesn’t lose the motivation to get clean. This is possible if governments are willing to create pacts to share vital information, automate processes and apply appropriate cybersecurity.

Predictive analytics also can play a role in reducing risk to children. Connecting data from child welfare systems with data from other systems—birth certificates, death certificates, public assistance programs, zip code analysis, criminal records—and employing algorithms that assign risk scores can help child welfare agencies focus their resources on the cases that require the most attention.

Fear of sharing confidential information is the most cited roadblock to using technology to address this crisis. But secure information sharing happens every day in areas like national security. The opioid crisis warrants use of equivalent cybersecurity controls to manage risk. Our nation is in a war with opioids, why not arm ourselves with every available weapon?