WASHINGTON – A new $4.9 million computer system to track foster care cases in Washington, D.C., does not comply with federal standards and will require as much as $14 million to fix, city officials say.
Database developers insist the system is up to snuff and that the problem lies not with programming but with a series of department bosses, now gone, who had conflicting priorities for the system.
Whatever the cause, advocates fear that the 3,000 children in city foster care could still be falling through the cracks because of poor record keeping in the absence of the court- ordered computer system upgrade.
“They still don’t know how many kids are in foster care on any given day,” said Judith Meltzer, whose Center for the Study of Social Policy has been the court-appointed monitor of city foster care for four years.
Without the new computer system, district caseworkers rely on an outdated computer and a stack of paper forms to record placement and other critical information on foster children. It can take weeks for social workers to learn that a foster care parent is being investigated for abusing a child placed in their care.
Meltzer estimates that the city’s count of children in care may be off by as many as 100 to 200.
“A lot of children may have not received adequate care because of the fragmented processing and antiquated system we currently use,” said Brenda Sly, the new head of child information systems for the Department of Child and Family Services.
It was Sly who determined after she was hired in January that the new $4.9 million system, contracted under former receiver Jerome Miller, would not meet department needs. She also determined that it will take $14 million to bring a system up to federal standards.
She does not have much time to make a new system work — what records the department has on computer will be lost in the year 2000 crash.
Miller, now working in Virginia on criminal sentencing issues, concedes that developing a computer database was not a priority when he was appointed receiver of the district department in 1995.
He has never been convinced that an extensive database would improve care for children, because he believes the problems lie with the caseworkers and their decisions, not with the computers.
But when Miller was appointed receiver by U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan, plans for the database were already lagging behind court deadlines.
“I had to make a decision (to award the contract) 10 days after I started or the mayor would be sent to jail,” Miller said.
He awarded the contract to MCSI Technologies Inc. of Silver Spring and acknowledges he gave little direction to database development after that.
Robert Nunnally, who was Sly’s predecessor, said he could not convince Miller and other officials to focus on data collection. The driving force behind the project seemed to be that Judge Hogan expected results, he said.
Miller needed to show “immediate progress” on the database, Nunnally recalls. And while MCSI’s contract was for a fixed price, department officials came back with “$300 million ideas” for what it should do, he said.
“It was a nightmare,” said Rollie O. Kimbrough, president and CEO of MCSI. “We said, `It will take two years.’ They said, `We can’t wait two years! Hurry up and do something! We’ve got to demonstrate it to the courts!'”
Kimbrough said he hopes that Sly and her boss, new receiver Ernestine F. Jones, will at last provide a cohesive vision for department data systems. He estimates his company has invested an additional $1.1 million to complete the current system, in hopes of starting fresh with them.
If the upgrade Sly is contemplating comes, she will look to the federal government to help pay the bill.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services paid 75 percent of the MCSI contract. HHS offered that cost-sharing deal to all states that were trying to comply with a congressional mandate to report uniform child welfare data.
But that deal expired in September.
HHS could still pay half of the $14 million Sly says she needs, if it approves of her plans. But HHS officials have been less than happy with the district’s track record.
Michael Kharfen, spokesman for the HHS Administration of Children and Families, said the city’s most recent data report, from the fall, was rejected for having too many errors. The district will face financial penalties if 1998 reports are more than 10 percent error-ridden, he said.
But to improve those results, Sly needs to patch things up with her own department’s technical workers.
“I sense the frustration from my staff,” she said. “There’s an unspoken sense of `We’ve been there before, what else is new? We will continue to be behind the eight-ball and we will continue to react instead of act.’
“If I could be part of making something positive happen I’d be satisfied,” Sly said.
“I can only fail or succeed,” she added. “And I intend to succeed.”