It's been 13 years since SACWIS entered the lexicon of administrators of state social services programs, yet a statewide automated child welfare information system that's fully compliant with federal standards still eludes many state governments.

Even with funding help from the federal government, states found themselves far behind estimated completion dates for building SACWIS-compliant systems -- some states reported eight-year delays, according to a 2003 SACWIS study from the then-General Accounting Office (GAO).

The GAO examined state child welfare information systems, at Congress' request, after a series of tragedies involving children under the supervision of state child welfare agencies across the country.

As of November 2006, three states had achieved SACWIS compliance, and two others were enhancing their systems to maintain compliance, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) Administration for Children and Families (ACF), which oversees SACWIS compliance.

The 13-year implementation lag is perhaps not the timeframe the federal government envisioned for states making the SACWIS transition. States face significant barriers to executing a successful SACWIS, however, including the complexity of the giant information systems and the cultural shift to information sharing among social services agencies forced by a SACWIS rollout.

Finding Fault?

States' slow SACWIS pace can be traced to several intertwined causes.

Funding is always an issue in big IT modernization projects, and SACWIS funding presents additional headaches. System design is another common problem in large projects, and SACWIS design adds an additional layer of complexity. Finally, bringing cohesion to differing data definitions among local, state and federal governments is proving difficult.

The federal government has offered states funding since 1994 to support SACWIS compliance initiatives. Of course, federal dollars always come with strings attached, and SACWIS funding is no exception.

States must submit planning documents to the HHS that specify how their systems will be designed, built, deployed and maintained. Also, states must include performance goals in the planning documents. Furthermore, HHS examines states' information systems through formal SACWIS assessment reviews, and a separate federal review process to evaluate compliance with child welfare laws and outcome measurements set by the federal government.

Timing was one problem associated with the federal SACWIS funding, according to the GAO's report. In 1994, the federal government matched state funding for SACWIS at an enhanced rate of 75 percent, but the GAO discovered that many states didn't apply for federal funding or begin SACWIS development until 1996 and 1997 -- when the bulk of federal funds had already been allocated.

Also, the enhanced funding rate expired in 1997, dropping to 50 percent, which meant states had to come up with more of their own money. Forty-two of the 46 states surveyed told the GAO they experienced varying degrees of difficulty securing state funding for SACWIS development.

States have other worries tied to federal funding, including how much money they need to pay back if a project fails.

Citing figures from the HHS, the GAO's report said North Carolina received approximately $9.6 million in developmental funds for its SACWIS. North Dakota received approximately $2.4 million in developmental funds and $245,000 in operational funds for its SACWIS. Unfortunately both states ran into difficulties and did not complete their systems, the GAO's report said, forcing the states to negotiate with the HHS to determine how much money to return to the federal government.

Federal Satisfaction

Despite the setbacks, the ACF is pleased with states' progress, said Wade Horn, assistant secretary for Children and Families.

"We have 43 states and the District of Columbia that are in some stage of SACWIS planning, development or actual operations," Horn said. "For a system which is voluntary for the states, I think that's a pretty good measure of compliance."

Though rolling out a SACWIS is a complex undertaking

Shane Peterson  |  Associate Editor