The state of Michigan is in the process of replacing a more than $200 million child welfare computer system installed seven years ago because it was found to be so flawed that it may be putting some of the state's most vulnerable children at risk.
The Michigan Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System, or MiSACWIS for short, has problems.
"It was not easy for folks to navigate. So they spent a lot of time kind of toggling back between different screens and trying to find out where information was captured so it was a little bit more difficult for them," said Demetrius Starling, executive director for Children's Services Administration for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
"They spent enormous amounts of time, you know, at their computer. Trying to either figure out where data was being stored or how to make sure that the system was actually getting them what they needed for like CPS investigations," he said.
That meant workers were spending less time in the field, less time on investigations and family assessments, less time making sure kids were safe.
Meghan Folkerson is a former case manager with the state of Michigan. She says she was given little training on the system. She also says there wasn't accurate data in the system when it came to restraints, parent visits, and visits from brothers and sisters.
"A lot of those things were getting put in incorrectly, or might be, you know get putting in, at a much later time, and especially for the youth that we dealt with that were basically on probation or general residential I mean, those documents go to court, that has a big part in where the rest of treatment is going to go when they're allowed to be home," Folkerson said.
She also says the system caused a lot of disconnect between facilities and their workers. She also says a lot of workers didn't have an accurate picture of where clients were in terms of their treatment or care.
"For a worker, if you place a child somewhere, I mean you do heavily rely on something like that to see the reports and see what's going on. And if those things aren't being uploaded aren't going through, then it creates that huge gap. So we ran into that a lot," Folkerson said.
"It just really wasn't up to date for you know where we were in the times, it would have just a lot of site issues. I mean you couldn't get through, like certain reports if you were missing something it was kind of all over the place," she said.
In 2019 an independent reportby Kurt Heiser was released assessing MiSACWIS and the state's child welfare data reporting infrastructure. It was requested by a federal judge.
It found that the system had "an unmanageable backlog of defects, incidents, and data fixes that are likely to persist indefinitely," getting in the way of effective casework and potentially hurting children and families.
"Despite a lot of effort from state folks to try to address these issues as they arose, the rollout of the MiSACWIS system was really plagued with issues from the start," Elizabeth Gretter is an attorney with Children's Rights, a national nonprofit organization. "The state repeatedly tried to address issues as they arose, but just did not seem to be able to get a handle on that system in terms of usability for the social work staff. And then, the accuracy of the data that's actually contained in that system," said Gretter said.
Here's a little back story on how the system came to be.
The Michigan Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System was rolled out in 2014 following a lawsuit that Children's Rights filed in 2006.
"The Dwayne B. lawsuit was filed back in 2006 now. We brought the lawsuit, back in 2006 as a result of a number of serious and dangerous deficiencies and the state's foster care system at the time," Gretter said.
She says those deficiencies included things like maltreatment and neglect of children in the state foster care system by their caregivers.
"Children, bouncing from placement to placement over and over again, children not receiving the medical and mental health services that they needed, not receiving visits from their caseworkers, there were a number of concerns that were leading to children, not being safe in Michigan's foster care system so we brought this lawsuit to try to reform and remedy a lot of those deficiencies," Gretter said. "We settled that case with the state of Michigan, for the first time in 2008. So the parties reached a settlement agreed to a number of reforms to the system. One of those reforms was the rollout of a new and improved data system."
But she says the system couldn't provide clarity on a basic question.
"In that original settlement, one of the key issues that we wanted the state to address was to be able to actually count how many children are abused or neglected, while they are in Michigan's foster care custody. That is a critical piece of information, and when this system first rolled out state did not have a handle on that number, and as a result of a number of the data issues over the past couple years," Gretter said.
Now fast forward to 2021. The state health department is putting in work to make these improvements.
The new system is called the comprehensive child welfare information system or CCWIS for short.
The state health department says the new system will provide more reliable information to state employee workers who investigate child abuse and neglect allegations. It would also help youth in foster care and also those who are facing juvenile justice cases.
"We believe it's going to allow us to take that significant next step, in the department's effort to overhaul our technology and to better serve our children and families by providing reliable data to tracking our performance," Starling said, "and also track different modules for our staff to input data when it comes to CPS staff foster care staff adoptions, juvenile justice, and licensing staff," Starling said.
The state doesn't have anything to show yet as they are beginning the design work with contractors for the first phase. The first module will be rolled out in December.
"Being able to have a concise and accurate platform tech platform is going to help our staff and the community at large to make sure that we have some good reliable data going forward," Starling said.
The new system will replace the old one in phases one module at a time. It will cost an estimated $49.9 million and should be complete by 2025.
Watch a full interview with Elizabeth Gretter, Attorney with Children's Rights, a national nonprofit organization
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