Child Welfare Initiatives Yield New Business Opportunities

Child Welfare Initiatives Yield New Business Opportunities<@VM>An Area Where I Can Make a Difference

Carol Williams

By Steve LeSueur, Staff Writer

The proliferation of automated child welfare information systems is laying the groundwork for a revolution in how the federal government measures the effectiveness of welfare programs, according to state and federal government officials.

In the past, the federal government's reporting requirements focused primarily on the accuracy and completeness of the states' case files and other records, but paid scant attention to whether states actually were achieving desired outcomes for children and their families.

That has been changing, and there is potential for even greater change as the Administration for Children and Families, the government agency that oversees Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System (SACWIS) programs, reviews comments to a proposed set of amended regulations it released last fall, called "Reinventing the Process."

"This is really new," said Carol Williams, who monitors child welfare programs as associate commissioner of the Children's Bureau within the Administration for Children and Families. "We've had regulations that have asked the states, 'Do you have a case plan or have you had an administrative review?' But we never asked the bottom-line question: 'Is this child in a safe, permanent environment?' That's a shift we're trying to make."

The new environment has been a financial boon to a growing number of companies, including Andersen Consulting, American Management Systems, Deloitte Consulting, IBM Global Services and Unisys Corp., which are scrambling to become the vendors of choice to install and operate such statewide systems.

State and federal spending for automated child welfare systems should continue at the current rate of about $175 million annually, and hit $1.7 billion by the year 2002, federal officials said. Spending in this area rose dramatically after 1993, when the federal government increased its funding to states that developed automated information systems to track abused children and at-risk families.

Congress passed legislation in 1993 to increase federal matching funds from 50 percent to 75 percent to states implementing automated systems. The enhanced funding lasted four years; the federal government now pays just 50 percent of the states' costs.

Thus far, 46 states and the District of Columbia have undertaken programs to implement SACWIS systems. Twenty states already have operational systems, and federal officials expect the rest to be operational by the year 2002.

"But that doesn't mean the spending will end," said Mark Ragan, director of the Department of Heath and Human Services' Office of State Systems, which coordinates the systems development and implementation.

While officials caution they cannot guarantee a specific level of funding, they "expect the spending to continue at the same pace after the systems are in place," he said. That is because field testing and fixes are likely to last several years, and states will want enhancements as well.

Also, the federal government is encouraging states to hold open competitions for vendors to operate and maintain their new systems. "Just because you bring someone in to build your system, that doesn't mean they're going to be operating it for the next 20 years," Ragan said.

Indeed, a number of states now in the implementation phase may not be particularly happy with their vendors and may be making or planning to make a change, he said.

Congress initiated the enhanced funding to prod states to adopt automated systems and improve the quality of their child welfare services. The new statewide systems also would channel vital information to federal reporting programs such as the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System.

The SACWIS systems allow social workers in each state to gather information about children and their families and store this data for use by other social workers throughout the state.

For social workers handling calls on an abuse hot line, for example, the SACWIS systems provide immediate access to a large information bank that previously would have taken hours, or even days, to assemble.

"When a call comes in, the automated system allows social workers to see if there's a history for the alleged victim or alleged perpetrator," said Dawn Tatman, an American Management Systems engagement manager who has helped install systems in several states. "They can see such things as who has custody, if there's a restraining order, if previous allegations were confirmed or who's the caseworker."

The benefits of Oklahoma's new automated child welfare information system, which was developed by Deloitte Consulting, already are apparent. Oklahoma officials used the system to determine which policies help children move quickly through the adoptive process and into permanent homes, and those that slow the process.

The painstaking task of going through each case file by hand would have been daunting and probably would have achieved limited results, said Bobbie Wilbur, the lead partner for Deloitte Consulting's child welfare projects.

"Once the systems are up and running, you can do a much better job of understanding what's working and what's not," said Wilbur. "It's a tremendous tool that can make a difference in children's lives."

The SACWIS program has not been without its critics. Larry Singer, president of Public Interest Breakthroughs, a nonprofit organization in Vienna, Va., that helps governments apply information technology in human services programs, contends that many states rushed into the projects without fully considering the needs of the social workers that would be using the systems.

"In 1993, the government started waving money around," he said. "A lot of states went after the money very quickly, but instead of figuring out the caseworkers' requirements, they used the money to put [personal computers] on their desks with e-mail and networks, which give some benefits, but that's about as far as they thought it out."

Singer supports the concept of the SACWIS programs, saying that child welfare has been the most systems-deprived area of the social services. But in many instances the social workers have not been involved sufficiently in designing the systems, and so have not been quick to embrace them, he said.

"They [the states] have to overcome the resistance of the caseworkers and show them there is a benefit to adopting these systems," he said. "The caseworkers will use them if you can demonstrate that the children will benefit."

Federal and state officials don't deny there has been some grumbling and resistance among social workers, but claim they have tried to involve workers in designing the system.

They also point out that the SACWIS system is more complex than other child welfare systems, such as those for tracking child support payments, and conclude it will take time for caseworkers and their managers to adapt.

One way the federal government tried to minimize upheaval was to make it easier for the states to share technology. Under the SACWIS program, each state is free to adopt and modify the system developed by another state.

As the systems are put into place, officials are finding ways to modify and improve them.

"Once people get a taste for the system, they want to do more with it," said Mary Ellen Stroniak, a director in New Mexico's Children, Youth and Families Department where an AMS system was installed. "I'm overwhelmed by what it can do."

Dawn Tateman

Dawn Tatman still remembers the tragic death in 1986 that drew her into the business of automating child welfare systems.

"It was Eli Creekmore," she said, a 3-year-old boy from the state of Washington who was regularly beaten by his father.

Eli's relatives and neighbors reported the abuse to local social workers, but the Creekmore family moved before any action could be taken, she said. When fresh incidents of abuse were reported in the new county, the investigative process started all over again. There was no way the new county could know about the other counties' reports and investigations.

At the time, Tatman said, the record keeping was very unsophisticated. "In some places, records of child abuse were kept on three-by-five cards and stored in big tubs," she said.

And so Eli's father was able to escape punishment, until he kicked his son in the stomach so hard that the child's intestines ruptured and he died, she said.

That death shocked and outraged Washington citizens. A subsequent investigation recommended the state automate its child welfare reporting so that children like Eli did not become lost in the system.

Tatman, who was working in Washington's information services department, was asked in 1989 to join the team tasked with developing the automated system.

"Our goal was to create a system that would help [the social workers] in their work and not make their jobs any tougher, but at the same time could provide the kind of information needed for a statewide automated system," she said.

She worked on the project until it was fully implemented several years later, and then moved to Lockheed Corp., which was teaming with American Management Systems to develop a statewide child welfare reporting system for Connecticut. Tatman joined AMS in 1996 to continue installing Connecticut's system, called the Family Automated Client Tracking System (FACTS), in other states.

Tatman recently oversaw the implementation of FACTS in New Mexico and is serving as an AMS engagement manager for Wisconsin and other states.

"I've been fighting this battle since 1989, and it's become a real passion for me," she said. "I feel like it's an area where I can make a difference."

— Steve LeSueur

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