Child tracking system flawed

Early users of Chessie to monitor foster children report glitches


When a Baltimore teenager was charged with murder in the bludgeoning deaths of her twin infant daughters in May 2004, state officials admitted that they had failed to protect not only the young mother, a foster care runaway, but her babies as well.

At the time, they reassured elected officials and child advocates that soon they would have a computer system in place that would keep an eagle-eye watch over the state's nearly 10,000 foster children, preventing such a tragedy from ever happening again.

But two years have passed since the infants were killed, and a test run of the case-tracking system has uncovered serious flaws. Dubbed Chessie by its creators, the system has been in the works since 1997 and is nearly three years behind schedule. Its price tag, originally estimated at $26 million, has ballooned to $67 million.

Despite its delays and nearly $40 million cost overrun, state officials are adamant that they will be able to fix Chessie and that it will save lives. Already in use in Harford and Eastern Shore counties, the system is expected to go live in Southern Maryland counties tomorrow and be in use statewide by the end of the year, with Baltimore City coming online last.

"Chessie will allow us to make quicker decisions and better decisions about the welfare of children in this state," said Rebecca Bridgett, acting executive director of the state Social Services Administration.

But in Harford County, where state officials have been piloting the system since February, there have been reports of serious glitches, problems that could wreak havoc in social services departments across the state unless they are resolved.

"We have identified numerous functionality problems," said Jerome M. Reyerson, director of the Harford County Department of Social Services, in a June 28 memo obtained by The Sun. "The problems documented ... limit the efficiency and effectiveness of the application, result in the waste of resources, and lead to the frustration of end users."

According to Reyerson's memo, Chessie's search function is so limited that workers could accidentally open new files for existing clients, a situation that could result in a failure to note past abuse or neglect. A botched search could link an innocent person to a child abuse or neglect investigation, he said.

The system also makes it difficult for workers to access closed investigations and referrals, which limits their ability to do their jobs, Reyerson said. And despite initial promises by state officials that Chessie would give workers immediate electronic access to thousands of cases statewide, a worker in Baltimore County still can't view a file in Anne Arundel County.

Allegany County director of social services Richard E. Paulman has also expressed reservations about Chessie. In a July memo obtained by The Sun, Paulman said that he and other directors were worried that workers could be "seriously hampered in their ability to protect children and families" unless improvements were made.

There are others in the state's social services network who have issued similar warnings about Chessie - some call it a boondoggle - but they say they are reluctant to go public with any criticism because of the politics behind the project. Although Chessie was hatched under Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, it has been embraced by Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Reyerson's response to The Sun regarding his memo reflects the tension surrounding the project. In a recent telephone interview that included Bridgett and another top official, Reyerson tempered his criticism and said that ultimately he saw Chessie "helping us in terms of service."

State officials agree that Chessie has some problems but say they are working to correct them. They say they have talked with officials in other states who have also constructed large child welfare computer systems, and they, too, encountered problems initially.

"It's a huge system that we are trying to implement, so there are bound to be some issues," said John Gallagher, the latest in a line of Chessie project managers. Gallagher has been on the job for 18 months. "No one who has been through this process is surprised that we are where we are."

The federal government has encouraged states since the early 1990s to build vast computer systems to track child welfare cases, and has provided funding. Federal dollars represent about half of Chessie's budget.

Maryland's system was originally based on one already in use in West Virginia. That system, which is not as complex as Chessie, cost about $10 million to build, according to news reports. Arizona, which built a system that more closely resembles Chessie, spent about $33 million in design and implementation, according to child welfare officials in that state.

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