Computers and caseworkers

August 08, 2006

Reported glitches in implementing a long-awaited computer system to track child-welfare cases raises questions about how effectively a machine can monitor vulnerable and potentially volatile families. A properly functioning computer system is an important tool in managing routine and even difficult foster-care cases, but it's no substitute for conscientious case management by well-trained and well-supervised caseworkers.

Maryland's child welfare system has been trying to do a better job of keeping up with nearly 10,000 foster children under its jurisdiction. The need seemed particularly acute after twin infant daughters of a runaway foster teenager were bludgeoned to death in 2004. The mother has pleaded guilty to two counts of child abuse resulting in death.

State officials have admitted failing to protect the mother and her children sufficiently and they have said that task would have been easier with a new computer monitoring system, nicknamed Chessie. But two years after those deaths, and at least three years behind schedule, Chessie is $40 million over budget and still not fully operational.

According to The Sun's Lynn Anderson, social services officials in Harford and Allegany counties have expressed reservations about Chessie's ability to operate efficiently and effectively. County officials who have tested the system have found functional flaws that could result in ignoring previous instances of abuse and neglect, inability to communicate information between counties and other difficulties.

State officials insist that a complex computer system such as Chessie is bound to have glitches and they are diligently trying to fix any problems. It's certainly true that a good computer system can help child-welfare workers determine whether a child is attending school or keeping up with medical or counseling appointments.

But it's also true that even a perfect computer system can't substitute for personnel who can judge whether a child is in danger. While many counties are able to adhere to model staffing ratios outlined in a 1998 state law, some larger jurisdictions such as Baltimore don't always make the mark. In the long run, the state can best help protect its vulnerable children by making sure there are enough qualified child-welfare workers to keep caseloads at manageable levels.

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