WASHINGTON – State officials are hailing a new $61 million child welfare database that they say will streamline a cumbersome, paper-based system, making it easier to track children and place them in appropriate homes.
But advocates, who said they have heard such promises before, are taking a wait-and-see attitude.
“I am just very skeptical that we will actually see it perform and do what it’s supposed to do,” said Bruce T. Anderson, CEO of the San Mar Children’s Home in Boonsboro.
The Maryland Children’s Electronic Social Services Information Exchange — or MD CHESSIE — is slated to begin running next month in Wicomico, Queen Anne’s and Charles counties, with statewide use scheduled for 2006. The system should enable caseworkers to follow the movement of children from the first report of suspected abuse through the court process to their eventual permanent placement, officials say.
“Certainly, the winner here will be the children and families that we serve,” said Elyn Garrett Jones, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Human Resources.
The federal government in 1993 required states to develop an electronic system for tracking children, and promised to reimburse states half the cost of developing the systems.
After several years of stop and starts, Maryland retained Deloitte Consulting in 2001 to develop CHESSIE. Maryland officials expect their system to cost a total of about $61 million, but they said it could ultimately cost anywhere from $55 million to $67 million.
Donald Carter Jr., the state employee managing CHESSIE, said the new system should expedite placement of children by automatically providing caseworkers with matches for foster homes according to the kids’ needs. Caseworkers could type in whether a child has mental or emotional problems or needs a home that is wheelchair-friendly, for example, and the program will show appropriate housing options.
Under the current system, caseworkers have to rummage through thick files by hand and use time and energy making calls to individual homes to find a match.
Carter said the referrals portion of CHESSIE, where caseworkers document allegations of abuse and any developments, is already up and running. Wicomico, Charles, and Queen Anne’s counties will be using this part of the program.
Deloitte and state officials are still developing the part of the system that will assist with placement of children, but Carter said they have a strategy for that. Deloitte will assist in the data collection and inputting process for that portion of the system, which will begin next year.
All in all, the system is on schedule to be up and running by 2006.
“Barring some significant tragedy, we’re on course,” Carter said.
But James McComb, director of the Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth, said that while he has faith in Carter, he does not think CHESSIE will be fully ready by 2006.
“To say that they are overly optimistic is an understatement,” McComb said.
But McComb said he supports the program, and testified to Maryland state lawmakers over the past four years to get funding for it.
Anderson, too, said he hopes the new system delivers, and helped garner support for it when the Maryland Department of Human Resources contacted him and other advocates.
But CHESSIE is the latest of a string of state programs that have tried and failed to improve the child welfare system, Anderson said. One program from the late 1990s also promised to track children and help caseworkers find services for them, but ultimately proved unreliable, he said.
“It just kind of faded away,” said Anderson, adding that he hopes CHESSIE does not have the same fate.
McComb said he hopes that, in the end, CHESSIE will deliver on all the capabilities that Carter has promised. But he is just not sure.
“I certainly could be wrong, and I’d love to be wrong,” McComb said.
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