Heather Rouse, a new assistant professor in human development and family studies, uses data to connect resources for families. Photo by Blake Lanser.

New assistant professor uses research to connect family services

Heather Rouse uses existing data to ensure kids’ health and readiness for success in school.

Rouse joined the Iowa State University faculty in human development and family studies this fall as an assistant professor. She partners with public service agencies and looks through data they’ve gathered to identify risk and protective factors for vulnerable kids.

“Our public service systems collect a lot of data,” Rouse said. “Those data could be really valuable if we better understood what was in those data systems. How can we use that information for research to make evidence-based connections for kids, particularly vulnerable kids?”

Rouse doesn’t view any single person’s data individually, but instead finds connections and patterns.

“I don’t even want to see data on John Smith in particular,” Rouse said. “But from a systematic perspective, let’s take a look at the entire state of Iowa. Where are there groups of children entering kindergarten not ready for school? Are there schools with large numbers of children with health care needs that could be connected with local health service providers? How can data, combined from different services and examined across time, help us make better decisions for kids?”

Identifying interconnected needs

In her previous work in Philadelphia, for example, Rouse helped conduct research that identified groups of kids who showed up in the welfare system one to two years after being in a homeless shelter with their family.

This research found that there were young moms with very young children who came to the homeless shelter needing temporary support. Though they received the housing support they needed, the children were needing more services a few years later.

“The only way we could find these things was because we were able to put together child welfare data with homeless shelter data and public education data to study children’s multi-system involvement over time,” Rouse said.

By using this cross-examination of data, the research showed the need for an extra screening to look at child care options when a mom with young kids first comes to a shelter. The screening identifies the mother’s needs, connects her with services, and helps to set her up for a more successful long-term outcome, so she is less likely to need additional services later.

“I want to help systems better serve children — particularly our kids that are most vulnerable, that have some family challenges, that have significant health care needs,” Rouse said. “In my experience, one of the ways we can do that is to figure out how to use the information we already have in a different way, in a more systematic way, in a more scientific way.”

Jonathan Fox, the Ruth Whipp Sherwin Professor in Human Development and Family Studies at Iowa State, said Rouse’s work has broad impact.

“Her work in child welfare touches researchers and practitioners, as well as policy makers,” he said. “An important overarching goal of her work is to help integrate historically disconnected public services in health, education, housing, and child welfare.”

Using research to affect public policy

Rouse found that public service systems usually want to work together, but often need to be provided the space and opportunity to talk.

She spent three years as the deputy research director in the Philadelphia mayor’s office through a fellowship with the Stoneleigh Foundation. The foundation supports people applying research to real-world situations to improve the lives of vulnerable youth.

“I got to put my nerd hat on and sit with the people who are actually making the decisions for what’s going to happen for thousands and thousands of children and families in the city,” Rouse said.

“And I had their ear,” she said. “When you think about administrators of big programs, they don’t have time to look at data. You have to put something in front of them that’s short and sweet — ‘tell me what the results are and how I can use them.’”

The fellowship gave Rouse valuable experience in how policies and programmatic decisions are made. It also helped her secure her most recent job as the Research Director for the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement. In this position she helped support the development and implementation of multiple health policies for the state through research.

These combined experiences have shaped her understanding of how to be a relevant researcher to be effective for policy change as a scientist.

“These experiences helped me see where science and policy intersect and where I need to be applying my skills better as a scientist to make sure that the research is actually getting used,” she said.

Giving back

Rouse said she is excited about the focus in Iowa State’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies on family health.

“We are really excited to have her join HDFS as she has deep experience in working with vulnerable families and children,” Fox said. “She is a perfect fit for the department’s focus on holistic family health.”

Carl Weems, professor and chair of human development and family studies, said Rouse’s research fits perfectly within the department and the College of Human Sciences.

“It has the potential to identify key factors that can be targeted to improve the health and wellness of individuals and families,” Weems said. “For example, in one study of over 10,000 children, she was able to show the impact of maternal education on not just child academic outcomes but behavioral factors like suspension and class conduct problems. We are thrilled that she will be bringing these research skills and sharing her knowledge with our students. ”

Rouse was born and raised in Iowa and said she’s excited to be back. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with her children exploring Ames, going swimming or to parks, and doing arts and crafts. She also enjoys seeing live music with her husband and looks forward to local concerts and music in the park.

“I really want to be able to give back to a state that raised me well,” Rouse said. “I care about what happens to the kids here, and I hope I can help continue to make this a better place to raise a family by bringing science closer to policy and practice.”