A Very Long Haul

It's taken a dozen years and may take a few more as states struggle to put IT into their child welfare systems.
October 2006
Ellen Perlman
By Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.

Back when "Groundhog Day" and "Sleepless in Seattle" were popular movies, the federal government offered hefty sums of money to states to design and build automated systems to improve their child welfare programs. There was great concern about the lack of information available on vulnerable children and their families, about children falling through the bureaucratic cracks when caseworkers tried to locate them using paper files that hadn't been updated.

Those movies are "oldies but goodies" but more than a dozen states are still working on putting in place a Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System (SACWIS)--13 years after the 1993 federal offer became law. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 27 states have operational systems but 16 states are still in the development stage; seven turned down the federal money, choosing to craft their own type of automated system.

Building huge, complex computer systems is always difficult. But 13 years seems like an extraordinarily long time. Finally, some of the laggards are making progress.

The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services announced in August that its new child welfare computer system was going online but only in Muskingum County. For now, caseworkers outside of the pilot county will have to rely on a 20-year-old child welfare system. The only way most caseworkers can find historical information about service providers, families, children and abusers is to page through paper files and call on family members and other parties to reveal important information. The new system will link information from all 88 counties, and more than 5,000 county caseworkers will have 24-hour access to the online files.

The state expects to roll out the new system to all counties in the middle of next year--if the pilot is successful. So far, things are running smoothly. "We haven't had any show-stopping problems" says project manager Nancy DeRoberts.

Part of the problem in getting the system in gear has been a managerial one: Ohio, like about a dozen states, has a county run, state-supervised child welfare system. It's never easy to get scores of counties to work in sync. "Maintaining their buy-in and involvement can be challenging over the course of time," DeRoberts says.

Other late-comers are struggling along. Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue expressed embarrassment last year over how long it has taken his state to move on its computer project. Earlier this year, the state legislature balked on an additional $3.5 million he was seeking in his budget for it, on top of $14 million that had already been approved.

Alabama was moving along--but so slowly its federal funding was threatened. "We don't like states to be in a constant development phase," says Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families at HHS. Alabama had spent $50 million and a dozen years using state workers and consultants to build a system that was going to take another five years to complete. The Alabama Department of Human Resources has since outsourced the project to speed up completion. With an experienced vendor on board, the system may be up and running by 2008 instead of 2011.

The silver lining for late states is that their systems will be state of the art. Six of the states that got a jump on building systems in the 1990s are actively planning on re-engineering those systems to make them Web-based, the way Ohio's is.

Despite the fits and starts, states are way ahead of where they were a few decades ago when case workers had to drive hundreds of miles to look at files that were in cabinet drawers in some other city. And they're further along than 10 years ago when the first SACWIS projects got underway.

There's still much to do. When SACWIS was first under discussion, planners talked about how package delivery companies could tell you exactly where a package was at any moment, when it would be arriving and via what route by looking at a handheld device. "In five years," Horn says, "we should be able to do that when accessing information about children.

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist | mailbox@governing.com