Using Data to Better Serve Vulnerable Adults

Using Data to Better Serve Vulnerable Adults

June 1, 2018 | Jennifer Cotter

Older woman

The adult protective services (APS) field is new to the idea of data-driven decision making. What has been demonstrated over and over again across industries such as medicine, sports, business, and social services is that data and data analytics can help people make better decisions. When it comes to the work of serving vulnerable adults, we can use data to make consistent and accurate decisions about how we target interventions and services—decisions that are often made by gut and intuition rather than data and rigor.

Recent efforts such as the National Adult Maltreatment Reporting System (NAMRS) have initiated a national standardized data collection system with the goal of better understanding national statistics related to abuse, neglect, and exploitation of older and vulnerable adults. Although this and other data-driven movements in this practice area are still in their early stages, your APS department can take initial steps needed to collect data, use data, and build a data-driven agency culture.

  • Structured assessment tools: These tools can assist with data collection efforts by requiring consistent input of information for each assessed client across each phase of the APS case. Given that data collection in APS is still in its infancy, implementation of structured assessment tools is the first step in an agency’s data collection efforts. You can’t use data unless you have data.
  • Data-driven decision making: Once your department is consistently collecting data elements related to the client and case, these data can be examined and analyzed to determine the type of relationships these client and case characteristics have to recurrence outcomes. If you know which clients are likely to come back to APS with another allegation of harm, you can use that information to target interventions and serve those clients differently.
  • Leadership: Data-driven assessment tools do not negate the need for professional expertise and subject matter experts in the field. A data-driven agency culture is dependent on supervisors and managers who understand data and persuade others to embrace the way data can support case-level decision making. Supervisors and managers are used to providing case consultations and using their experience and intuition to advise staff on case decisions. When structured assessment tools are informed by data analytics, case consultations shift from “What do you think?” to “What do we know?”

The work of APS departments and staff is not about numbers, data collection, metrics, or algorithms. It’s about vulnerable adults and the service decisions that can help promote safety, identify needs, and reduce harm. Experienced, caring, and trained APS professionals should continue to use their hearts and minds, alongside data and data-driven assessment tools, to improve decision making about how to best serve one of our most vulnerable populations.

If you are interested in learning more about how to use data-driven assessment tools and analytics in your APS department, contact Jennifer Cotter at


Jennifer CotterJennifer Cotter is an associate director at NCCD, focusing on the Structured Decision Making® system for child welfare and adult protective services. 

This is the fourth blog in a series addressing adult protection. To read the whole series, click here