STEP: The Data Scholars Initiative

Providing the Child Welfare workforce with the skills, resources and support to strengthen Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI) through data mining, analysis, research, planning, project development, evaluation, communication and brainstorming. The program educates and empowers local Protective Services offices and their partners in order to increase positive outcomes for children and families.


An Investment in Time That Delivers Real-World Results

The Data Scholars Initiative is designed to accommodate a Child Welfare employee's busy schedule. Over 9 months, participants commit to a day of classroom instruction and a day of coaching focused on their local office's challenges. Learning from the local office takes place via web-based lessons. The Data Scholars Initiative is designed for the child welfare professional who enjoys meeting challenges, facilitating problem solving, and getting to results.

Our Mission

To promote a data-driven and results-oriented protective services process to support children and strengthen families.


The program is firmly grounded in the values of the child welfare agency with a workforce committed to the goals of helping children and their families. We are committed to finding solutions to some of our most persistent problems.


We envision a statewide network of child welfare professionals skilled in data analysis, working together, sharing strategies, and overcoming challenges. We envision local offices that have the capacity to best serve their communities.


Four Components Provide Personalized Instruction and Accommodate a Busy Workforce

Classroom Instruction

Multimedia presentations plus large and small group discussions to provide opportunities to learn, share, debate, role play and dialogue. The activities promote empowerment, nurture creativity and strengthen critical thinking.


Participants receive coaching focused on identifying local problems and building skills needed to initiate and strengthen CQI. Coaching provides technical assistance in data analysis, research, software, technology, capacity-building, group facilitation and communication.

Web-Based Lessons + Resources

The STEP website provides participants with lessons, links to data, access to research, and all the tools and virtual training needed to support a local data-driven, results-oriented process.

Local Sharing + Projects

Participants choose a local challenge to solve with on-going support from the instructors. Participants are given the tools to share all aspects of the program, including the development of the local data-driven projects, with their local office.

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Education Continues Online With a Learning Management System

The web-based learning management system provides unique features to strengthen all aspects of CQI including: project/experiment project management, assessment, planning, data-informed action, evaluation, policy and program research. The website allows the participant to continue learning in the local office. It supports the blended learning approach, combining web-based instruction and classroom experiences. Web-based instruction supports participants with different learning styles and levels of interest.

State-of-the-art features:

  • Lessons on nine topic areas
  • Illustrated glossary of terms
  • Multimedia to reinforce topics
  • Links to data
  • Infographics to illustrate key concepts
  • Guide to data mining and analysis
  • Guide to policy, protocol and program research
  • Guide to experiment project management
  • Training materials for local office staff
  • Comments and feedback features
  • Post-lesson surveys
  • Teleconferencing with instructors
  • Complete Course Curricula
  • Evaluation Tools and Procedures

To lean more about the evaluation of STEP and customizing the program to meet local needs, click: STEP COMPONENTS+EVALUATION.


STEP Empowers Institutional Change

Hover over the course topics below for more details on lesson content:

Session 1:
Begin Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI) Process
Session 2:
Assess Work Flow Strengths and Challenges
Session 3:
Explore Evidence-Based Practice
Session 4:
Plan with Logic + Research
Session 5:
Test a Hypothesis + Collect Evidence
Session 6:
Use Data to Inform Action
Session 7:
Evaluate Results with Data
Session 8:
Communicate About Change
Session 9:
Get to Results
Starting Initiatives

STEP focuses on quality improvement and reaching measurable goals in all areas of child welfare including:

  • Goal 1: Improve placement stability for children in Protective Services custody
  • Goal 2: Improve safety assessments and safety planning
  • Goal 3: Decrease repeat maltreatment
  • Goal 4: Improve assessment of clients' needs and build capacity to meet those needs
  • Goal 5: Increase recruitment and retention of Protective Services field staff

Instructors and Coaches Understand the Power of Data and Research

headshotDominic Cappello (Developer and Instructor) is the co-founder of Safety+Success — a socially engaged design and strategic planning firm. He is currently leading the development of the STEP Data Scholars and Quality Improvement Initiatives in New Mexico, Connecticut and New York City. He worked for the NM Department of Health's Epidemiology and Response Division and the NM Protective Services-Research, Assessment and Data Bureau. He has a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies with an emphasis in Language and Communication from Regis University. Dominic is the co-author of the Ten Talks book series on family safety that gained a national audience when he appeared on Oprah.

headshotKatherine Ortega Courtney (Strategic Planner and Consultant) has a PhD from the Texas Christian University where she studied at the Institute of Behavioral Research. Her focus has been on improving organizations. Dr. Courtney worked with the State of New Mexico for six years, first as the Juvenile Justice Epidemiologist, then as the Bureau Chief for Protective Services Research Assessment and Data Bureau. An advocate for data-informed decision-making, Dr. Courtney championed the development of STEP to strengthen continuous quality improvement throughout child welfare. She currently is directing initiatives with the Santa Fe Community Foundation.

headshotSarah Meadows (STEP Coordinator/Liaison) has a MSW from NMSU and a BA in Psychology from the College of Santa Fe. Sarah works as a Data Evaluation Specialist for the Protective Services Research Assessment and Data Bureau, oversees the STEP application process, and is supporting development of STEP materials and resources. She previously worked as a Senior Investigator and brings to STEP a perspective from the field. Her interest is in how data can inform policy and empower individuals at every level to facilitate positive change.

headshotHeather Labansat (Guest Instructor/Coach) graduated from Texas Christian University with a PhD in Experimental Psychology with an emphasis in Cognition. Interested in applied research, her research developed new strategies for helping people be more effective at goal attainment and learning. Her work with Child Welfare focuses on using scientific methodology to develop evidence-based practices to solve workplace and community problems. Heather currently teaches undergraduate and graduate courses for Tarleton State University in Dallas-Fort Worth..

headshotDelphine Trujillo (Content Specialist) holds a Master in Social Work with a concentration in Direct Practice from New Mexico Highlands University. Delphine has been an employee with the State of New Mexico for 16 years, the majority of that time with CYFD Protective Services. During her time with CYFD, she has served as a Permanency Planning Worker, a CPS Supervisor, a Title IV-B Contract Specialist, the Bureau Chief for Protective Services Community Services Bureau, and is currently the Regional Manager in Bernalillo County.

headshotPatrice Perrault (Content Specialist/Coach) has worked in human services for almost 30 years and as a professional social worker for 17 years. She earned her Bachelor's Degree from The American University in 1985 with dual majors in Psychology and International Relations. Patrice earned her MSW from Catholic University in Washington, DC in 1997. Patrice has worked in a variety of service fields including child welfare, behavioral health, homeless youth, HIV/AIDS services, crisis intervention and developmental disabilities. For the last five years she has served as the Youth Services Bureau Chief for the state of New Mexico's Children, Youth and Families Department.

headshot Chad Shaver (STEP Coach) currently works with the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare Results Oriented Management (ROM) project. ROM provides reporting and analytical tools for human services agencies for monitoring and reporting outcomes. Chad is currently the lead developer and liaison to both New Mexico and Colorado. Prior to joining the ROM project, Chad spent a decade in state service with the Wyoming Department of Family Services where he served as a data analyst, CQI manager and SACWIS manager. Chad has a Masters Degree in Social Work from the University Of Wyoming and lives in Laramie.

headshot Karla Young (STEP Coach) holds a LMSW from New Mexico Highlands University. She has worked for CYFD for 18 years. The first ten years in investigations in Bernalillo County, as a worker and then supervisor. For the past eight years, she has been with the Quality Assurance Unit and is currently the QA Manager. She is committed to developing and championing the Continuous Quality Improvement process throughout the agency.

headshot Cynthia Chavers (STEP Coach) is a Licensed Master of Social Work. She has worked for the State of New Mexico Protective Services Division for 17 years and has been a supervisor or manager for 14 of those years. Her areas of specialization have included children and families, immigration, Family Drug Court and ICWA. She is currently working as a Quality Assurance Specialist for CYFD.

headshotBarbara Needell (Consultant) provides support to public child welfare agencies in the use of administrative data. She recently retired from her position as Principal Investigator of the California Child Welfare Indicators Project (CCWIP) at UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare. Barbara graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Mills College, with a B.A. with Honors in Psychology. She received her M.S.W. and Ph.D. with Distinction from the School of Social Welfare at Berkeley, and was the recipient of the 2008 Peter Forsythe Award for Leadership in Public Child Welfare from the American Public Human Services Association.




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STEP is designed to reinforce and complement the experimentation and use of data that is integral to the Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI) process. STEP participants will receive focused training on CQI, data mining and analysis, and research into evidence-based practice. STEP participants will bring back what they learn from the program to their individual offices, addressing challenges specific to that office, team, or facility.

STEP is designed to empower individual offices to identify the strengths and challenges unique to their communities; understand how data informs local change initiatives; and how evaluation effectively measures progress. STEP provides participants with the skills to solve problems using data, research and technology— strengthening systems change on the agency and community levels.

STEP is designed for child welfare professionals who are interested in data, research, and evidence-informed practice. We seek self-directed participants who are motivated to learn, share, challenge assumptions, and manage change.

Qualities of successful participants include: being invested in using data to inform practice and decision-making; being invested in CQI; a willingness to enhance communication skills to present the relevant skills learned in STEP to their local office; and an interest in proactively improving agency performance and outcomes for families and children.

STEP is an ongoing CQI process, which will continue to impact participant's work in years to come. STEP begins with a training over nine months. Participants attend two full days of classroom and coaching sessions each month. Participants impart the knowledge, skills, and insights they gained with coworkers.

An application process includes getting buy-in from immediate supervisors to ensure that participants are allotted the time needed to invest in the STEP and fully commit to data-informed decision-making. Leadership is committed to ensuring that those participating in STEP have dedicated time.