Northwoods is helping social workers manage cases remotely amid Covid-19.

Across Ohio there are 88 county departments of Jobs and Family Services. One out of every four Ohioans is in that system that provides medical, cash and food assistance, child care, child support and job-related workshops. To get help, each person’s eligibility has to be verified each time he or she applies for a service. The result is more than 1 billion documents that have to be processed efficiently so people can get the help they need.  

Prior to the end of 2018, virtually all those documents were handled on a county-by-county basis. Those counties couldn’t easily share documents when someone moved, and paperwork often got misplaced in a process that wasn’t uniform. Caseworkers spent more time on administrative tasks than helping families. 

“Let us focus on casework, not paperwork,” says Joel Potts, executive director of the Ohio Job and Family Services Directors’ Association. “The eligibility process is so paper-dependent, and our workers were spending an inordinate amount of time on that paperwork. The files easily got lost, including when they had to be transferred across county lines. You’d make copies, have paper files and, in some larger cities, the files were maintained in different buildings.”  

For years, though, some counties individually had invested in content management software by Dublin technology company Northwoods. Its Traverse product, for example, scans and analyzes all the information that’s collected, which allows social workers, supervisors, directors and state executives to more easily make decisions about the vulnerable populations they serve.  

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“Traverse turns every word on that paper into text, and then uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to provide insight into that content and summarize that content and deliver that to the social worker, immediately allowing them to have a better understanding of what they are getting into when they walk through a door on a home visit,” says CEO Gary Heinze.  

The software presents information in the form of what Heinze calls a “word cloud.” An employee can look at the cloud and get a high-level orientation of a case in a matter of seconds versus hours of investigation.   

As part of the Affordable Care Act, states could receive a 90 percent federal match if they made upgrades to their benefit eligibility systems by the end of 2018. Northwoods won the contract to implement a statewide document management system that has helped counties reduce the paperwork burden and free up caseworkers to spend more time in the field, accessing and submitting documents from anywhere. It’s been especially helpful amid the Covid-19 pandemic.  

“The counties are raving about how well it works to suddenly have remote workers and be able to keep up with the applications,” Potts says. “There have been a quarter of a million applications through these last 10 weeks, plus the regular caseload, plus we’re dealing with a recession. Northwoods’ system allows us to stop focusing on paperwork and focus on outcomes.” 

Heinze co-founded Northwoods in 2003 to ease the burden of social workers who were overwhelmed with the volume of cases they received and case files that could run into the thousands of pages. The goal was to provide software to help caseworkers manage, collect, view and share content and data more efficiently. Today, nearly 45,000 social workers and caseworkers across the U.S. use the company’s products.  

Northwoods has several former agency directors on staff, and its employees observe what’s going on in the field. Several years ago, Northwoods employees tagged along with child welfare workers, for example, to understand their burdens. They found many of those workers were carrying paper case files from house to house and that they were spending two-thirds of their day doing paperwork. 

The result was a product called Compass CoPilot in the Field. It allows caseworkers to have a mobile document management solution that gives them instant access to complete case files no matter where they are.  

“We did a study after the solution was in place and found that the caseworkers were now spending one-third of their time on paperwork,” Heinze says. “It freed them up to help the people they are trying to serve.” 

Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer.