City to launch Chessie system

Foster-care tracker to go online today, completing state rollout

fixes already discussed

January 08, 2007|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,Sun Reporter

Even as state officials prepare to track Baltimore foster children with a new $67 million computer system today, they are contemplating $10 million worth of repairs to fix serious glitches and shortcomings that have already surfaced.

Baltimore's Department of Social Services will be the last of the state's 24 jurisdictions to implement "Chessie," the Children's Electronic Social Services Information Exchange. The city agency is also the largest, with 6,500 foster children and 800 caseworkers, making it more prone to chaos should the new system falter.

"All will go well, provided the good Lord is willing and the creek doesn't rise," said city DSS Director Samuel Chambers Jr.

Chambers said he has been reassured by state officials that they have taken care of many problems that were reported when Chessie first went into use in smaller jurisdictions but added that he is still not confident that the system will be the silver bullet some have promised. Chambers said he has requested that dozens of state workers with knowledge of Chessie be on site at city DSS offices today in case something goes wrong.

"If there are glitches, then there will be people on hand to take care of them," said Chambers, who has asked many of his top managers also to be on hand for the changeover, which is expected to take place about 8:30 a.m.

Child welfare advocates say they are hopeful but also concerned about Chessie's use in the city.

"The most critical thing is getting enough people there to prepare cases for electronic conversion," said Linda Heisner, deputy director of Advocates for Children and Youth, referring to the 32 state workers who will help city caseworkers switch from older electronic systems to Chessie. "If that doesn't happen, it's going to be a mess."

She said that because of the large number of Chessie problems already documented, advocates are focused on getting money from the General Assembly to fix and improve the system. The price tag for the computer system - which is supposed to help caseworkers keep track of foster children as well as reimbursements to foster families - has ballooned in recent years and is roughly $40 million over budget.

"We are going to work with legislators to get the money we need to make the system work as it was intended," said Charles R. Cooper, administrator of the State Citizens Review Board for Children, which reviews cases of children in foster care for more than six months, and advises the legislature on foster care issues.

Cooper said he doesn't know exactly how much the repairs and upgrades to the system will cost but believes the sum could be large.

Heisner said she has heard that repairs and "enhancements" could cost as much as $10 million. "It doesn't have to be done at once, but it should be done," she said.

There have been numerous complaints about Chessie since it was first unveiled in Harford County nearly a year ago. In some cases, social workers have become so disenchanted with the new system that they have reverted to pen and paper. There have been concerns that the system might inadvertently classify people who routinely make abuse reports - including teachers - as child abusers.

The city was supposed to begin using Chessie last fall, but the roll-out date was moved back several times in order to give information technology workers more time to fix problems. City Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua Sharfstein also wrote a letter to Department of Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe, whose agency oversees foster care in the state, requesting a delay until McCabe could be sure that children's lives would not be jeopardized.

Sharfstein referred questions regarding today's start to Chambers.

"We cannot guarantee that there won't be any problems, but we will have enough people on this that as problems are identified we will be able to quickly react," Chambers said.

The DSS director also said he will delay the redeployment of workers whose job tasks could be taken over by Chessie until after he is sure the new system is functioning correctly. Some child welfare advocates said they worried that workers whose job it is to place foster children in homes and treatment facilities would move to new jobs too soon and that some children could be sent to the wrong facilities.

"I want to see how Chessie works out before there are any changes," said Chambers. "I am going to be judicious about this."

A spokeswoman for McCabe said he was not available for comment.

lynn.anderson@baltsun.com

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