Oregon's $40 million child welfare computer upgrade has lots of glitches, some serious
Oregon child welfare managers have not had access to statewide performance data showing how quickly local offices are responding to abuse reports and other information. Foster parents have waited for payments. And caseworkers say they are spending time putting information into a computer that should be spent with families.
SALEM -- Oregon child welfare managers have not had access to statewide performance data showing how quickly local offices are responding to abuse reports and other information. Foster parents have waited for payments. And caseworkers say they are spending time putting information into a computer that should be spent with families.
A $40 million computer upgrade that went live in August, after being delayed nearly a year, has suffered all kinds of problems, though top agency managers stress that none of them has put children in danger.
Dangerous or not, the Department of Human Services' "OrKids" project provides yet another example of government's difficulties with large-scale technology projects. In 2009, a new $80 million state computer system that handled nearly 2 million Oregon Health Plan claims each month ran into serious technical difficulties. Last year, lawmakers decided to dial back on a statewide emergency communications system because the estimated costs were growing exponentially and without explanation.
The new child welfare system is still on budget and the vendor, Canada-based CGI, is working with the state to correct the problems, says Carolyn Lawson, chief information officer for the Department of Human Services and the Oregon Health Authority.
The upgrade, required by the federal government and partially paid for by federal dollars, consolidates seven computer systems of various vintage into one, web-based system.
Despite serious glitches, Human Services Director Erinn Kelley-Siel says OrKids has already proven to be a useful safety tool.
In the past, because of fragmented information, caseworkers may not have known about abuse reports involving a foster parent. Now, Kelley-Siel says, the computer sends an alert whenever there's an allegation of abuse so anyone who has a child placed in that home knows.
Still, Kelley-Siel acknowledges that the new system and its problems come at a "really difficult time" for workers in field offices, where staff numbers are the lowest they've been in years.
Karen Miller, a local union leader who provides computer support at Human Services offices in the Portland area, says she routinely talks to caseworkers "who are concerned that children are not being made safe because they aren't out in the field and are instead spending the bulk of their afternoons doing repetitive data entries."
Rather than making information easier to get, Miller says caseworkers find it even more difficult to access a child's medical file and other critical information.
Meanwhile foster parents, group homes and others have had problems getting paid.
The upgrade has "gone poorly and created its own extraordinary impact," says Janet Arenz, executive director of the Oregon Alliance of Children's Programs, which includes volunteer and mentoring nonprofits, psychiatric treatment providers and other family service groups.
Arenz says alliance members, who work with 95,000 of the state's most vulnerable kids each year, "have been struggling to receive payments for services they have performed under DHS contracts."
"Some outstanding payments go back as far as May 2011," she says.
In response to such complaints, Human Services officials have scrambled to make sure providers get paid, even if it's by a hand-processed check.
Inside the agency, problems with the new OrKids system mean data managers have been unable to pull together reports showing how well the child welfare system is functioning.
Since 2008, the agency has issued monthly "dashboard reports" measuring everything from how quickly local district staff investigate abuse reports to how often caseworkers see children in foster care to how long it takes for children to be either returned to their parents or adopted into a new home. The numbers have not been updated since August.
Local managers are keeping track of what's happening with their kids, says Jerry Waybrant, chief operations officer for state child welfare and self-sufficiency programs.
Yet Waybrant says the dashboard reports are valuable.
"They inform us where we need resources and training. It's not pleasant for me not having those available."
Oregon isn't alone. Washington, which used the same vendor, also encountered problems updating the state's child welfare technology, says Lawson, the Oregon technology officer.
"I've done a variety of these large systems and it never goes smoothly," she says. "It almost doesn't matter how much you test it, there are always going to be issues."