Eye of the Storm

New Jersey's Department of Human Services faces a firestorm of controversy as it looks to rebuild the image of its Division of Youth and Family Services.

by / June 27, 2003
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officials, interoffice memos, and notes made by social workers during visits to children's families -- made clear that outdated, inefficient technology plagues the DYFS.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 Panel on Child Protection Services to study the state's foster care system. One of the panel's primary recommendations was a SACWIS implementation, said Anthony D'Urso, graduate professor of psychology at Montclair State University (MSU), who served as chairman of the panel.

A SACWIS proposal seems to be an integral part of every version of reform planned for the DYFS, D'Urso said. The fits and starts associated with SACWIS are all about where to put the necessary millions of dollars -- and until now, the priorities were elsewhere, he contended.

"Government understands that kids are not being tracked adequately, and they understand there is a remedy for that," he said. "Do they have a full comprehension of the extended costs of systems like this? Do they understand how difficult it is and how much time it's going to take to transform an agency that's using antiquated equipment to state-of-the-art equipment? Those ripple effects typically aren't considered."

Officials of New Jersey's DHS and DYFS are once again planning to implement a SACWIS, nonetheless.

The state has released its first SACWIS RFP, and it selected a validation, verification and testing vendor in mid-May, said Curtis Goldhagen, SACWIS project manager. The state finalized a second RFP for a SACWIS implementation vendor in mid-May and hopes to have that vendor begin work by the end of September, he added.

Originally New Jersey intended to pursue the "big bang" method of deploying SACWIS -- developing code, testing and then rolling out a complete system -- but pressure to immediately address some of the technology problems at DYFS prompted the state to change its tack.

"The big bang is certainly a legitimate way of rolling out a SACWIS project in other states," said Mark Londregan, administrator for the DYFS Office of Information Services. "As a result of the incident in Newark, there's been a lot more interest in trying to make sure we get functionality out to our case work staff much sooner than a big bang approach would provide."

Now the state intends to pursue a phased approach that will deliver improvements more quickly, but make managing the project more difficult, Londregan said.

DHS is one of the few state agencies tabbed for a potential funding boost in New Jersey's fiscal 2004 budget. In his proposed fiscal 2004 budget, Gov. James McGreevey earmarked an additional $20 million for the DYFS. The division already secured funding for fiscal 2003 to proceed with the SACWIS project. The additional $20 million will help the division hire new staff and deploy PCs to caseworkers in regional offices.

Not an Isolated Incident
Other states that have faced the same situation say controversy can make already difficult technology projects that much harder by demoralizing staff and siphoning off needed resources.

Tennessee was once in similar straits. It also was sued by Children's Rights. The state settled the lawsuit two years ago and began the arduous process of reforming its child welfare system, said George Hattaway, former commissioner of Tennessee's Department of Children's Services. That reform process involved implementing a SACWIS, he said, which required almost four years.

SACWIS projects inherently are tricky. They must be deployed across an entire state, to offices with a wide range of technical infrastructures and a varying willingness to accept new ways of doing business. When the lens of public scrutiny is focused on such efforts, they become that much more complex, Hattaway said.

Though Tennessee's SACWIS developed into a system that greatly benefited caseworkers, it didn't happen overnight. The project needed time to evolve and be improved through refinements -- time that's not readily available during a controversy.

"The problem is you don't have a whole lot of time to wait for it to get better," Hattaway said.

Developing a SACWIS in a controversy-charged environment is perhaps one of the most daunting tasks a human services agency can face, he added. "The constant criticism makes it worse. Your staff gets totally demoralized when they just get beat up every single day in the newspapers."

Alabama also confronted a lawsuit and subsequent rebuilding process. Perhaps the biggest problem the state faced was coping with the demands of litigation, said Paul Vincent, director of the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, and former director of the Alabama Division of Family and Children's Services.

"New Jersey is still in litigation, and is probably going through discovery -- which is enormously time consuming," he said, adding that Alabama devoted a senior staff member and several other employees almost exclusively to preparing documents requested during the two-year discovery process.

"We were forever extracting reams of data [plaintiffs] asked for, and sending them policies and case information," Vincent said. "Given everything else that goes on when you're trying to turn a [child welfare] system around, having that additional workload adds another level of complexity, another project to manage and another demand for resources."

There's also a chance the terms of a legal settlement or ruling will predispose the SACWIS deployment to failure.

"The many competing demands for system improvement that would occur if there was a settlement or a court order are going to make it more difficult to have the single-minded focus on SACWIS that you'd want to have during the development phase," he said. "That's a risk, and there will be some sense of urgency about finishing it. There are some pieces of this work that can't be hurried too much."

Managing Expectations
New Jersey's DHS and DYFS may be under considerable scrutiny, but Goldhagen said the project team isn't dwelling on managing the controversy associated with that scrutiny. Instead its focus is on managing expectations.

"The pressure we feel from different places, which includes from within DYFS, is at this point, 'How fast can we close the gap?'" Goldhagen said. "We're not feeling a lot of pressure for the entire system to come out earlier or faster, but it's a challenge we handle on almost a daily basis -- to keep answering those questions, and to make sure people know what's in front of them and understand how much work this is. It's an education game."

Delays also have another unfortunate side effect, said Londregan: The longer the state is without a SACWIS, the more people expect from the system once it's implemented.

"You hear all the time, 'SACWIS will solve that' or 'SACWIS will fix that,'" he said. "The longer that goes on, the more it does frighten us that the expectations keep growing and growing. That is a lesson learned from other states. You have to make sure people have good expectations about what SACWIS can and can't do."

In addition, Goldhagen and Londregan said they are spending a lot of time making sure people understand that automation also may demand improved business processes. They intend to avoid automating existing practices that don't work or don't follow a standard.

"Part of software development is looking at those business processes, coming together and making decisions about the way the entire state wants to do something, rather than having things done slightly different depending on which particular office you go to, or which part of the state you go to," Londregan said.

Over the last two months, the SACWIS team concentrated on opening communication lines with all the agencies and branches of government involved -- DHS, senior leadership at DYFS, the Legislature, the Governor's Office -- so all parties know exactly what the state faces during the implementation, Goldhagen said.

Inclusive Planning
MSU's D'Urso said New Jersey is approaching the controversy in a positive way, but he expressed reservations about current reform efforts.

"I'm not sure the planning is inclusive," he said. "The planning is being held within the departments of state, which is not always a good thing -- to sequester how much input you're going to get from people who are knowledgeable in child welfare. I'm always worried when government circles the wagons and decides how to reinvest and redefine itself without productive input."

To his knowledge, he said, no one from the 1997 panel nor other leaders in child welfare have been asked to join the current planning process -- though early discussions did include the possibility of outside input. Agency heads know their business, D'Urso acknowledged, but a narrow approach doesn't address a crucial fact of government.

"Government is a collaborative effort among an administration, and priorities and ways of managing public service are subject to influence and priorities in terms of each administration's sense of what is right and wrong," he said. "The value of oversight is that it provides alternate opinions that government can either accept or reject, but at least decisions are being made in an informed way."

DHS said it is taking steps to collect broader input. The agency scheduled a public forum in Newark, N.J., to gather opinions for improving children's services, said Joe Delmar, a DHS spokesman. The forum was designed to gather children's advocates, government officials and community service agencies for a series of discussions and workshops on DHS' reform efforts.

Delmar added that DHS would conduct similar meetings in each of New Jersey's 21 counties.

"The idea is to get local communities involved in the process," he said. "It's not a state or government problem, it's often a problem central to that local community. Only by bringing government and local agencies and the community together will we be able to help children."
Shane Peterson Associate Editor