Tracking system delayed again

The Baltimore Sun

The implementation of the state's new foster child tracking system in Baltimore has been delayed because of continued reports of operating glitches and growing concern among child advocates, including the city's health commissioner, that the system will remain flawed unless more time and money are invested to fix it.

The Baltimore Department of Social Services was slated to start using the Chessie computer system - short for Children's Electronic Social Services Information Exchange - in the fall, but the date has been moved back several times. The latest start date for the city, the last of the state's 24 jurisdictions to begin using the system, is Jan. 8, according to city and state officials.

But the start date could change depending on the ability of tech workers to fix problems and the legislature's willingness to pony up more money to make sure the system operates smoothly.

"I don't want Chessie in the city until everyone is comfortable that it is going to work," said city Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, who wrote to state officials about reported problems.

Sharfstein said he was pleased when Department of Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe postponed implementation in the city, but said he still worries that the system might put children at risk.

Child advocates have met with legislators to discuss the possibility of getting additional funds to cover system fixes, 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. He said that while the amount of additional funding needed is unclear - so far, Chessie has cost $67 million in state and federal funds, nearly $40 million more than expected - it could be hefty.

"It is a fairly substantial task that has to be done," Cooper said.

A spokeswoman for the DHR said the agency's tech staff is busy trying to fix problems with the system and that any requests for funding would be made in conjunction with Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley's administration.

Some social workers who have used the system have also expressed serious concerns, and in some cases have refused to use the system. Instead, they rely on old-fashioned paper and pencil or basic computer documents to keep track of foster children.

"We need a system that is accurate to make sure that we do what is best for these kids," a veteran social worker said during a recent interview.

The social workers who criticized Chessie spoke under the condition that their names be withheld. They said their superiors warned them they would be fired if they spoke to the media.

The social workers also said the system still cannot be used to submit payments to foster parents, something it was supposed to handle, and that some court officials have raised concerns over the legal adequacy of reports generated by the system. Chessie was designed to make social workers' jobs easier so that they could spend more time in the field with children and families, but that has not been the result, the social workers said.

"Every time you click, there is an hourglass," said one of the social workers, referring to a symbol that pops up on computer screens after a command. "And you wait and wait and wait."

Another problem with the system, according to a Dec. 5 memo from a Baltimore County social services administrator, is that it classifies those who make child abuse reports - teachers, doctors, nurses and neighbors - as agency "clients," which could result in them being mistakenly identified as child abusers. A background check could pick up such information and in turn jeopardize a teacher's ability to gain employment.

"Reporters could become reluctant to make calls about [abuse] cases," said Mark Vidor, assistant director for family services with the Baltimore County Department of Social Services, in his memo, the authenticity of which was confirmed by The Sun. Or reporters "could begin to make anonymous reports so as to protect their identities, in which case our ability to gather necessary follow-up information is compromised."

Vidor writes that he wants to discuss the problem, as well as ways to advocate for "changes in Chessie that we believe to be important," at a meeting with other social services officials tomorrow. A telephone call to Vidor to discuss the meeting and possible outcomes was not returned.

The Sun first reported serious problems with the system in August after social workers in Harford County started using the system. That county's head of social services documented the problems - including a faulty search function and insufficient access to closed cases and referrals - in a June memo to Department of Human Resources officials. He also begged officials to fix the problems before other jurisdictions also had to begin using the system.

But six months later, and with all but Baltimore City up and running with Chessie, problems persist, according to child advocates and social workers.

"You cannot put a system up like this without problems," said Cooper, administrator of the review board. "But the question now is: Are the problems of such a drastic nature that you should do something different? We are still debating that."

Cooper said state officials have acknowledged that the problems are "critical" and that at least one - the faulty search engine - will require the purchase of customized software modifications to fix.

"We are moving toward a common understanding of what needs to be done," Cooper said.

Sharfstein wrote to McCabe in the fall seeking answers to some of his own concerns about the system, including weak quality controls that make it difficult to correct mistakes, which in turn could result in an improper placement for a foster child or inadequate services.

"Chessie's proper functioning is imperative to the safety of kids statewide and particularly in Baltimore City," Sharfstein wrote in his Sept. 26 memo to McCabe.

Sharfstein said he wants to put all the support he can behind Samuel Chambers Jr., director of the Baltimore Department of Social Services.

Chambers has said he has confidence that tech workers can fix Chessie. More recently, he said he worries that the system might not be able to accommodate simultaneous use by hundreds of city caseworkers in addition to workers across the state.

"My concern is whether or not the backbone of the system is robust enough so that when you flip on the switch on Jan. 8, there is not a problem," Chambers said.

The director said that if the system proves to be unwieldy, workers will not use it.

"What you wind up with," Chambers said, "is a system that loses credibility."

lynn.anderson@baltsun.com

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