It's no fun when your department's name is smeared across the front pages of newspapers throughout the nation. Just ask the New Jersey Department of Human Services (DHS). Earlier this year, shocking details were made public regarding deaths of foster children -- deaths that were blamed, in part, on allegedly lax state oversight of the foster care system.

Nearly every state has confronted the unfortunate task of managing a controversy involving one of its agencies, but New Jersey's scenario is the stuff of nightmares. It's not pleasant when an agency is vilified in the press for awarding questionable contracts or spending too much money on an ill-fated IT system. It's horrific when innocent children die.

New Jersey's situation offers a glimpse of how controversy can subtly reshape technology projects. Already the DHS has taken steps to address problems in the agency's Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS). But the state still faces many challenges, not the least of which is replacing legacy technology in a troubled agency while the world watches every move.

In the current environment, New Jersey officials say they are much more aware of the need to manage expectations for technological upgrades planned at DHS and DYFS. The state also shelved plans for a "big bang" implementation of new technology. Instead New Jersey officials opted for a phased approach designed to deliver improvements to end-users more quickly.

DHS publicly acknowledged shortcomings at DYFS through media interviews and testimony before the state Legislature. DHS also was forced to release 2,000 pages of state records to media outlets. The records already had been released to Children's Rights, a children's advocacy group, as part of a lawsuit the group brought against the state in 1999.

The New York Times and The Star-Ledger sued over access to the documents, and a federal judge allowed Children's Rights to turn over the material. The Children's Rights lawsuit is still pending, and New Jersey officials said the state will continue to fight it.

The documents -- including medical records of children and families, e-mails among DYFS staff members and officials, interoffice memos, and notes made by social workers during visits to children's families -- made clear that outdated, inefficient technology plagues the DYFS.

Limited Technology

One document included the following note from a DYFS caseworker who realized information about sexually abusive foster parents had been incorrectly entered into the DYFS service information system (SIS): "I've accepted that most of what we put on SIS is wrong, and I'll get over it."

New Jersey expressed misgivings about the DYFS' technological environment in an RFI for developing a statewide automated child welfare information system (SACWIS) released in November 2000.

SIS records demographic information about clients, their families and relatives, and tracks services provided to families under DYFS supervision, according to the RFI. The RFI noted several inadequacies of SIS -- the system has poor text handling, requires clerical staff for data inputs and updates, is not usable by caseworkers, does not encourage or support DYFS policies, and lacks a user-friendly graphical interface.

SIS is one of four mainframe systems at DYFS, the RFI said. The division also is using approximately 40 different PC-based applications to bolster deficiencies in the mainframe systems.

This piecemeal approach is a big reason New Jersey wants to implement a SACWIS -- 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.

New Jersey's SACWIS Path

Recent controversy may have placed more urgency on technology upgrades at New Jersey's DHS and DYFS, but awareness of technology deficiencies reaches back further than the 2000 RFI.

In 1997, then-Gov. Christie Whitman created the Governor's Blue Ribbon

Shane Peterson  |  Associate Editor