DHR, meet IT

September 26, 2006

Maryland child welfare administrators are taking a risk by installing a problem-plagued computer system to track abuse and neglect cases statewide despite widespread complaints about the system's poor performance. But if the right safeguards are in place, it's a risk worth taking.

The new system is slated to go online in Anne Arundel, Cecil, Montgomery and Baltimore counties next week and in Baltimore City in November. A spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Resources says sticking to that schedule "is the best thing for child welfare." Well, maybe.

The system, already three years behind schedule, is supposed to make it easier for caseworkers to update files and share information about clients and their families. That would certainly enhance their efficiency and effectiveness.

However, critics say the new computer system has a faulty search function and quality control weaknesses and it provides limited access to case files. For instance, it has no mechanism to prevent multiple and conflicting information from being entered about the same case and has no method for easily correcting such mistakes.

In fact, child welfare officials at local offices around the state where the $67 million system is in use have given it mostly negative reviews. But in most of those cases, sufficient technical staff was not on hand to assist caseworkers before, during and after the tracking system went online.

The Coalition to Protect Maryland's Children has urged DHR Secretary Christopher J. McCabe to delay the start date for implementation in Baltimore, which has the largest number of children in state care and thus the greatest potential for errors and problems. But that's the wrong solution to a largely solvable problem.

It's too early for the department to give up on meeting state and federal deadlines - which require a workable system by the end of this year - and resign itself to incurring federal fines. Fundamental design problems should be fixable; providing strong technical assistance as local offices come on line should be obligatory. And the sooner, the better.

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