January 13, 2008 By David Raths
A June 2003 Government Technology article revealed how inadequate data systems contributed to severe problems at New Jersey's Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS), which is responsible for foster care and adoption programs.
A 1999 lawsuit filed by advocacy group Children's Rights Inc. had shone an unwelcome spotlight on several shortcomings of the legacy systems employed by DYFS. Among other limitations, caseworkers had difficulty using the software, which lacked a user-friendly graphical interface, and the system required clerical staff for data inputs and updates.
Another difficulty was the piecemeal approach to technology. DYFS used 40 PC applications to bolster deficiencies in four mainframe systems. As the Government Technology article noted, "The lack of a unified system allows crucial information to slip through electronic gaps too easily. When that happens, children's lives are put in jeopardy."
In 2003, with the lawsuit still unsettled and the media spotlight focused on horror stories about lax oversight of the foster care system, New Jersey began the arduous task of selecting and implementing a modern statewide automated child welfare information system (SACWIS) by issuing an RFP.
Flash forward to the summer of 2007. Although the lawsuit filed in 1999 was settled in 2003 and the settlement agreement modified in 2006, many challenges remain, including implementing a new case practice model, and improving the network of health-care units and services for kids under state supervision. But New Jersey has taken several important steps toward rectifying the situation, not the least of which was the August 2007 rollout of the state's SACWIS software to its caseworkers.
Automation and Integration
Dubbed NJ SPIRIT (New Jersey Statewide Protective Investigation Reporting and Information Tool), the $70 million project - 50 percent of development costs were funded by the federal government while the state Legislature appropriated funds for the rest - was released in stages, starting with a centralized state call center in November 2005. Previously calls went to more than 40 locations around the state, with a lack of consistency in coding referrals.
"Citizens weren't clear who they should call to report a child at risk," said John Ducoff, director of the Office of Legal and Regulatory Oversight and acting CIO for the Department of Children and Families, the Cabinet-level agency created in 2006 to address child welfare issues. The department is composed of all agencies related to child welfare, including DYFS.
The new statewide call center uses a central registry that allows employees to receive and document calls, and send information out to field workers to investigate.
Ducoff, project manager for the SACWIS rollout, worked with Montreal-based software vendor CGI Group Inc. on design, development and testing. Although the state is pleased with the software, he said there were times when executives had concerns that the project was falling behind schedule. "CGI stepped up with additional resources toward the end to meet our goals," he said.
After a three-month pilot in spring 2007 and the training of more than 5,000 staff members, Ducoff described the August 2007 rollout as a milestone for the agency. "This type of system is a huge change," he said. "It's a new Web-based application that we're introducing to people who have been using an old mainframe system for 28 to 29 years."
Matt Hogan, vice president of the state and local solutions group at CGI, said the SACWIS software eliminates the tedious parts of case management. "We had one state exec who actually counted and noted her caseworkers were writing down a family's name 20 to 25 times in different paper-based forms, and that is not uncommon," he said. "With the Web-based software, that kind of form-based work is left behind."
Although CGI can build on the SACWIS projects it's done in other states, each system must be customized for individual needs. One implementation challenge, Hogan said, is writing interfaces to other state
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