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.

Shane Peterson  |  Associate Editor