Child welfare system faulted

Federal audit describes Md. computer program as among nation's worst

Twins' deaths raise questions

New software installation was postponed last year

May 30, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Federal auditors examining Maryland's child welfare system are criticizing the state for having one of the worst computer systems in the nation for tracking abused and neglected children.

"Can we find every child in the foster care system? The answer in Maryland is no. It's not necessarily that they're lost, they're just not in the computer system as they should be," said Susan Orr, a spokeswoman for the federal Department of Health and Human Services, which by June 10 is scheduled to release a report on Maryland's child welfare system.

Questions about the adequacy of Maryland's information system were raised recently in the case of Sierra Swann, a 17-year-old foster care runaway who was charged with murder on May 16 after her twin infant daughters suffered fractured skulls.

When Swann gave birth to the babies April 12, Johns Hopkins Hospital called the Baltimore Department of Social Services to inquire about her. But the worker who researched her history on the state's computers failed to discover or report that she was in the records for abusing a previous child and having a foster care runaway warrant out, state officials said.

As a result, the hospital released the babies with Swann. The children were found dead May 11.

Floyd Blair, the interim director of the Baltimore Department of Social Services, suggested in an interview last week that a new computer software system being developed by the state might have made a difference in the Swann case. Others have doubted this, pointing to human error in the handling of the call.

Since 1998, the state has spent $35 million developing a software program called "Chessie," which is meant to better track foster children like Swann, as well as child abusers and adults who receive welfare.

New system delayed

The program was to have been in operation by June 2003, but budget cuts by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the legislature that year slowed the project to a near standstill, state officials said.

Since then, the schedule for installing the computer system has been pushed back to 2006 and 2007. Its total projected cost has grown from $48 million to $64 million, and the price could rise by millions more, state officials said.

More than a year before the deaths of Swann's children, legislative analysts warned in a February 2003 report that if the state didn't finish the computer project, more children could die.

"The proper and timely development of the MD Chessie system is critical to the state's ability to ensure the well-being of the vulnerable children under its care," the report stated.

`Big Iron'

The Chessie project is meant to replace an older mainframe computer system - which features a huge, van-sized IBM called "Big Iron" - that was installed between 1992 and 1998, said Donald Carter, manager of the Chessie project.

The system doesn't have nearly enough terminals for all social workers. It uses columns of obscure codes - such as "LA-Type....04" for a runaway foster child - and requires many social workers to go through the time-consuming process of filling out paper forms to hand to data entry clerks.

Chessie is intended to be easier to use, with quicker access to information from about 2,500 desktop computers operated by all child welfare workers.

Budget issues

But with sharply reduced state funding, the project has slowed. The Department of Human Resources kept it creeping forward this year by paying for software designers through $3.3 million in cuts in other areas.

The agency has tightened its belt in many ways over the past year. It saved about $2.7 million this winter by temporarily halting new approvals for cash assistance for disabled poor people.

A continuing hiring freeze has meant that the department has 204 fewer child welfare case workers than recommended as adequate by the Child Welfare League of America, according to state analysis.

Some advocates for children, including attorney Mitchell Y. Mirviss, complain that the department seems to be cutting services for poor people and abused children to pay for a software project that may not even prove as useful as advertised.

"Cutting necessary programs just for an information system that might not work is moving very badly in the wrong direction," said Mirviss, who represents foster children in a class-action lawsuit.

Norris West, a spokesman for the department, said that the money for Chessie this year came not from programs for the poor, but from cuts in administrative areas such as travel, conferences and consulting contracts.

Department Secretary Christopher J. McCabe has put a priority on finishing the computer project and has "kept Chessie from the graveyard by making these cuts," said West.

State Del. Van T. Mitchell, chairman of the House subcommittee that examines the department's budget, said he has asked for a state audit of Chessie and other software projects whose costs and management seem to have snowballed out of control.

But federal officials say that Maryland clearly needs to improve its computers. Federal auditors gave "Big Iron" a low score - with Maryland ranking below 42 of the 47 states whose audits have been released so far, and no state scoring lower, Orr said.

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