data systems. For instance, federal foster care eligibility guidelines require collecting data from state welfare systems.

 
Caseworkers Get New Tools
NJ SPIRIT merges case management and data collection tools to help Department of Children and Families executives more easily produce reports on the aggregate condition of the child welfare system.

A caseworker placing children in foster homes can pull up on her NJ SPIRIT screen a list of which foster homes are available in her geographic region. In addition to seeing the number of beds currently available, the caseworker can also get descriptions of characteristics of children and families to do better matching.

The system also automates tasks, such as requesting a child be transferred from one foster home to another, that used to require filing paper forms with several different offices.

An other advantage of the new system is better connectivity between the state attorney general's office and DYFS. Attorneys now have much broader access to DYFS records. "When one has a court date, he can access the system directly and see every case note," Ducoff said. "Previously he would have had to call our staff and ask them to make a paper copy of a file."

Although it's too early to assess the impact of the new software on the day-to-day experience of caseworkers, Ducoff is convinced that the system will not only do a better job of supporting their work, it will also help agency executives better manage their resources. "The advantage of the new system is that it is built to collect and track more data," he said. "The potential is huge to help us manage the agency better."

As an example, the system allows caseworkers to document unmet needs, Ducoff said. "In other words, if they tried to offer a service to a client and it wasn't available, they can document that in the system. The theory is that this will help us understand where to build more capacity."

Ducoff said the creation of a Cabinet-level agency to deal with child welfare and the appointment of Kevin Ryan, the former head of the state Department of Human Services, as its first commissioner has elevated the focus on child welfare issues.

Ryan himself sees better data systems as key to the agency's turnaround. Although the state tried to make incremental improvements to its data systems while the SACWIS project was unfolding, progress was limited. Testifying before a state legislative committee in February 2006, Ryan described many of the agency's ongoing shortcomings, and he called its legacy data systems "terrible."

"I recently received several conflicting reports on the same data request for caseloads," he said. "We cannot identify and address our problems if we don't have good data systems."

 

Making Use of the Data
New Jersey's well documented difficulties are not unique. About a dozen states are in some form of litigation about the inadequacies of their child welfare programs, and a major problem of almost every state is that their data is not very good, said Judith Meltzer, deputy director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for the Study of Social Policy.

Meltzer, who serves as the court-appointed monitor of the 2006 revised settlement between Children's Rights and New Jersey, calls the SACWIS implementation a "tremendous challenge" for New Jersey.

 "First, it has to be customized and designed to match the business processes of the state," she explained. That requires standardizing those business processes, which can be different from region to region or office to office. Older data has to be put into a format for use by the new system. Making the transition is another issue for a work force that is either new and has to be trained, or old and resistant

David Raths  |  contributing writer