Child welfare tracker debated

State proceeds with system rollout despite reports of problems

September 25, 2006|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,Sun reporter

State officials are moving forward with implementation of an embattled computer system to track child welfare cases despite warnings from child advocates and social workers who say dramatic improvements are needed before it is expanded to Baltimore.

Members of the Coalition to Protect Maryland's Children are urging Department of Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe to roll back Baltimore's planned Nov. 13 start date to give technicians more time to correct glitches.

"It's becoming difficult to determine what the situation with [the new system] is and what the depths of the problems are," said coalition chairman Charlie Cooper, who is also administrator of the statewide Citizens' Review Board for Children. The coalition formally made its concerns known to McCabe in a letter last week.

The computer system, which cost $67 million to build and is nearly three years behind schedule, is already in use in many smaller jurisdictions around the state. Reviews have been mixed, and frequently negative. But child advocates say they are especially worried about the chaos that could ensue in Baltimore, which has more clients to track and more complex cases to manage.

"We have some real concerns," Cooper said. "It would be best to fix it."

McCabe had not officially responded to the group as of late Friday, but his spokeswoman told The Sun that he would not delay the implementation schedule. Anne Arundel, Montgomery, Cecil and Baltimore counties are set to switch to the new tracking system, dubbed "Chessie" by its creators, on Oct. 3.

"We are going to stick with the time frame," said spokeswoman Elyn Garrett Jones. "We want to push forward because we think this is the best thing for child welfare."

State officials face significant financial motivation not to delay their schedule, according to Kirk A. Grothe, the chief information officer for the department's Office of Technology for Human Services. The federal government could fine Maryland or force it to return some of the funds used to finance the project unless the state wraps up by the end of the year. Federal money represents about half of the project's multimillion-dollar price tag.

State lawmakers, fed up with long delays and cost overruns, have also set a Dec. 31 deadline, Grothe said. The department's contract with a technology consulting firm will expire about the same time.

"I do think that we are at a serious risk if we don't go live with the Baltimore project in November," Grothe said. "Federal officials have been clear that they weren't pleased with the progress of the project in past meetings, and they have reinforced their feelings at three additional meetings more recently. ... They want to see us push it through."

Chessie - one of the largest and most expensive computer projects in recent state history - has been beset by management and budget problems since its inception nearly a decade ago. The system was created in an effort to help case workers keep track of clients. It was also supposed to make it easier for workers to update case files and share information about clients and their families.

But when the system was introduced in Harford County this year, workers complained about a slew of glitches that they said made their jobs more difficult and potentially endangered the lives of their clients.

An August report in The Sun detailed some of those problems, including a faulty search function and narrow access to case files. At the time, state officials said they were aware of the issues and working diligently to correct them. They said that officials in other states who had built similar systems had also encountered obstacles and that they had been able to fix them.

It appears, however, that many of the same issues are still causing concern among social workers and child advocates.

"We definitely need more time before we go live in Baltimore," said Pat Gorman, an official with the state chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, who has heard of problems from many social workers around the state who are already using Chessie. Baltimore "has the biggest caseload and the most complex cases. ... It's scary."

Baltimore Social Services Director Samuel Chambers Jr. said that he had heard some of the concerns but is putting his faith in Grothe and his team of technology experts to make sure the city doesn't encounter any major problems when workers move to the Chessie system in November. The city's Social Services Department is a branch of the Department of Human Resources.

"We are monitoring the situation, but I put a lot of confidence in [Grothe's] ability to resolve the glitches," said Chambers, who went through the implementation of a similar child welfare case tracking system when he was head of social services in Detroit.

"I think that if we are creative and we can stay on top of this, we can solve 99 percent of the problems," Chambers said. "There is no way there won't be any glitches."

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