Using Record Linkage to Understand Family Needs

How connecting human services data gives insight to improve well-being

Over the course of their lives, children and their families interact with different public services, such as education, housing, courts, health care, and social services. But researchers, policy makers, and social service practitioners often don’t see the full picture of their needs because data from these different systems are not connected. This lack of insight can leave researchers without the full picture to make recommendations, policymakers with incomplete evidence to make decisions, and service providers guessing how to best serve families.

Record linkage, a tool and methodology Chapin Hall has used for decades, can help give change-makers the information they need to answer difficult child wellbeing questions. Record linkage is the process of matching information from different databases and analyzing the results of those connections. As demand for record linkage services grows, Chapin Hall’s expertise in this area is being increasingly called on to more comprehensively identify challenges facing children and their families.

To link records, Chapin Hall experts connect datasets to models that sift through administrative records from across systems and decide if they belong to the same person. Once enough linked records are collected, Chapin Hall experts can see patterns in the data that tell stories of how children and their families use programs. They can answer such questions as: which program interventions help children stay with their families instead of entering the foster care system, or how likely are children who run away from foster care to be involved with the juvenile justice system? This valuable evidence empowers Chapin Hall experts to recommend better strategies to positively impact children, youth, and their families.

In one Chapin Hall collaboration with Illinois state agencies, researchers used record linkage to combine data from multiple Illinois state information systems at the individual level to form more than 500,000 clusters of families. To understand which services families used, researchers analyzed information from five service domains, including adult and juvenile incarceration records, child protective services, substance abuse and mental health treatments.

The results showed 23% of families in the study had members receiving services in two or more domains.  These families accounted for 86% of the funding for the services used. Mental health treatment was the single most provided service, and institutionalization in all domains made up the majority of costs.  Researchers also found over 80% of families had experienced violence in the home. These findings show how record linkage brings previously unknown connections to light and broadens our understanding of families’ needs.

Chapin Hall researchers have also used record linkage to create new resources like the Integrated Database on Child and Family Services in Illinois, which paints a portrait of the families who came into contact with child-serving agencies in the state. In addition to breaking down data silos to improve policy and practice, Chapin Hall experts establish best practices for using record linkage in the field and advocate for quality standards around how to use this innovative tool. Their years of experience and deep understanding of record linkage position them to consult others looking to leverage it in their services or studies.

Researchers at Chapin Hall who conduct investigations using record linkage include Senior Research Fellow Robert Goerge, Researcher Aida Pacheco-Applegate, Researcher David McQuown, and Analytics Manager Emily Wiegand. Contact Wiegand by email for more information.