Suffering from investigation delays and faulty lines of communication, Georgia's child welfare system for years was in need of critical support.

Each of the state's 159 counties had its own separate database system, creating problems for case managers who struggled to keep track of when a child moved. Then, in the early 2000s, two foster children died. Although not solely responsible for the deaths, "the system definitely could have helped in identifying the issues with those children much earlier," said Venkat Krishnan, CIO of the state's Department of Human Services (DHS).

In the wake of those incidents, the key players realized that a system overhaul couldn't wait.

"The death of a child has often been an instigator for reform," said Sean Toole, senior executive for Accenture, an international consulting and technology services company.

In 2005, Georgia officials put out an RFP for a contractor to develop a statewide automated child welfare information system. Called Georgia SHINES and built by Accenture, the Web-based system allows the DHS and the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) to better monitor children in the system, improve data sharing across county lines and have access to real-time data that tracks progress.

By eliminating what Krishnan calls the "geographic and functional silos" of the old system, state officials, social workers and case managers now have better insight on each child's history, and those records won't fall between the cracks.

"With the new system, the majority of information about the child and family is recorded as part of the case management system," he said. "When a child goes from one county to another, it's just a county transfer with the click of a button."

Up and Running

The push for statewide automated child welfare information systems (SACWIS) started in 1993 after a law gave states the opportunity to receive 75 percent enhanced funding through the Title IV-E program of the Social Security Act, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Most states are in the process of developing SACWIS, with the current total of project costs exceeding $2.3 billion. Twice before, Georgia tried to implement a statewide system, but those projects failed when delays caused funding and support to dry up.

The hardest part was merging and transferring all the data from the different counties into one central database, Krishnan said. But a strong collaboration between state officials and Accenture helped steer the $40 million project to completion.

"We wanted to do this on time and on budget," Krishnan said. "The way we overcame the challenge was to have robust public-private partnership."

It took nearly two years to implement the system, and Toole said they kept the momentum going by familiarizing workers with the technology through formal readiness assessments. Also, instead of using the capital city of Atlanta as the testing grounds, the project directors launched the pilot production site in Douglas County. There, project staff collaborated with county staff in a moderately sized area with a diverse population - a "more authentic environment," Krishnan said.

Analyzing Outcomes

With Georgia's old county database system, Krishnan said, there would be 700 or more overdue investigations every month. This means child welfare cases that should have been closed for months were still open, which created backlogs and delays.

With the new system, each investigation is meant to be done in 45 days. Now, Toole said, there are essentially zero investigations behind schedule. Another way the system aims to boost effectiveness is through built-in alerts that notify case managers when a new intake has been received by a family, or a foster home has been approved, or they're overdue on an investigation task.

The idea is that translating and compiling data into comprehensive information will increase accountability and transparency for stakeholders on all sides of welfare cases. For example, the new system provides reports that show managers the various steps in the process of each case instead of just a success or failure grade. These outcomes will be used to identify problem areas or trends. Then the case manager can make a more informed decision about the type of assessment needed.

"Now, decision-making is based on outcomes as opposed to fast principles," Krishnan said. "It's a sea change on how child welfare is practiced. The overall system of operation has improved. It keeps everyone on the same sheet of music."

Russell Nichols  |  Staff Writer