AMRE Students Provide Valuable Answers for County Agency
Young researchers help Children Services identify cause of increased custody cases
WOOSTER, Ohio — An alarming increase in the number of children in foster care across Wayne County triggered a swift response from the local branch of Children Services, and led administrators to seek assistance by outsourcing the research to an increasingly popular enterprise at The College of Wooster.
The agency noted an 86-percent spike in foster-care placements between March 2011 and September 2012, so they turned to Wooster’s Applied Mathematics & Research Experience (AMRE) for assistance.
“We recognized the substantial increase and perceived disparity between Wayne County and other counties in the state,” said Deanna Nichols-Stika, interim executive director of Wayne County Children Services. “This prompted us to contact AMRE.”
AMRE is an eight-week summer program in which undergraduate students from a range of majors — primarily mathematics and computer science — gather to analyze data and then develop solutions for problems posed by clients in business, industry, government, education, and the non-profit sector.
In the case of Children Services, four seniors — Annie Godonoga, Sheharyar Khushnood, Rebecca Wardrop, and Andreja Siliunas — under the guidance of faculty adviser James Burnell, professor of economics at Wooster, immersed themselves in the agency’s data while attempting to learn the terminology and case-documentation system.
The students first compared Wayne County’s statistics against Ohio’s other 87 counties in 10 areas, including teen pregnancies, crime rates, drug deaths, unemployment statistics, and custody cases. They then examined the agency’s internal assessment in an effort to determine how various children wound up in custody.
What they found was both intriguing and surprising. Wayne County compared favorably with the majority of counties in most categories, with one major exception — drug abuse. According to the student’s findings, drug abuse affected 63 percent of custody cases in 2012 in comparison to approximately 33 percent of custody cases just four years prior. Custodies result when investigators determine that children are not in a safe environment.
“We learned a great deal from the study,” said Nichols-Stika. “We’re not sure why this is happening, but the AMRE team provided a great first step in the right direction.
“The students were fabulous,” added Nichols-Stika. “They were very diligent in assessing the data and providing our agency with a wonderful report that will help us build on and improve our services.”
The four students also benefited immensely from the experience. “What I liked about the project, and about the AMRE program in general, is the wide range of skills and aptitudes you gain,” said Godonoga, a business economics major and French minor from Moldova. “The end result is definitely rewarding, especially if you find out something valuable that will benefit your client. The most important part, however, for me personally, is the process itself: researching and familiarizing ourselves with the topic, brainstorming with fellow team members about potential ways to tackle the problem, designing a framework with milestones and objectives to achieve, getting to the results part, and interpreting and communicating our findings in an explicit, comprehensive way. It is amazing how much you learn in this process.”
Khushnood, a senior mathematics major from Pakistan, was excited by the fact that his experience was directly related to what he wants to do after graduating from Wooster. “I am very interested in data analysis and data-driven solutions that help to explain the problem and provide answers for the client,” he said.
Wardrop, a senior mathematics and economics double major from Rockford, Mich., found value in the opportunity to relate what she learned in the classroom to her experience in the field. “Working with Children Services through AMRE taught me a lot about how the skills I've learned in my economics and math classes apply to the real world,” she said. “Since math and economics can often seem rather cold and numbers-based, it was fun to use those tools to solve a social problem. This AMRE project definitely gave me a broader perspective on how I can use the skills I've developed while at Wooster.”
For Siliunas, a senior sociology major from Riverside, Ill., the project became intensely personal. “I was already interning at Children Services, and had a vested interest in child welfare,” she said. “The experience allowed me to better understand Wayne County's child welfare system at both macro and micro levels; to familiarize myself with various types of child welfare data; and to apply my technical, critical thinking, and communication skills in a field that I care about deeply. The experience introduced me to the field of social statistics and helped me to craft my Independent Study (Wooster’s nationally renowned senior research experience). I hope to use the interdisciplinary problem-solving skills that I developed over the summer in my future endeavors, especially as I continue to explore careers related to social welfare policy.”
Nicholas-Stika said that the agency will continue to process the data provided by the AMRE team. “We now have a clearer understanding about why more children have come into our care,” she said. “As we move forward, we will utilize the AMRE project information to drive best practices and data collection within our agency to build safety and permanency for children in the county."