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DCS computer problems cost $3.96 million to fix

8:16 AM, Oct 9, 2012   |    comments
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By Anita Wadhwani, The Tennessean

The state is spending $3.96 million to fix a defective computer system that the Department of Children's Services installed two years ago to keep better track of children in the agency's care, agency Commissioner Kate O'Day told The Tennessean.

The computer system, designed at a cost of $27 million, has been blamed for a variety of problems that include skipped payments to foster parents and the inability to find a particular child's history when a brand-new report of abuse or neglect is received.

There are more than 1,700 defects identified in the system. Many of those failures have placed the state directly on a path to violate a 12-year-old federal court order.

The federal case known as "Brian A." was put into place to monitor DCS after egregious problems came to light in the state's foster care system, including keeping young children in emergency shelters for months at a time.

O'Day said in a meeting with the Tennessean Editorial Board that her agency has made significant progress in addressing the computer glitches in the Tennessee Family and Child Tracking System, or TFACTS, a computer system that O'Day points out was put into place several months before she took over the agency in January 2010.

"When I came into office, I was told these were normal growing pains and it would all work out in time," O'Day said. "I kept getting a very nicely reformatted defect list of several thousand defects.

"Finding I was not getting anywhere, I finally jumped three layers in the organization and finally talked with the staff, who worked on this themselves. I came out very alarmed at what I was told."

A report by the comptroller's office said in 2010 and earlier that DCS staff "disregarded obvious and known problems with the system" but decided to launch it anyway.

The same report by the state comptroller's office, however, also found missteps in the months after the system was put into place. Department officials, the report found, "have compounded the mistakes and errors in judgment related to the decision to implement TFACTS statewide by failing to adequately track the record of problems with the system and proactively address the known issues."

Even now, O'Day acknowledged, "we have a long road to go."

The TFACTS system is intended to hold the official case record of each child and family in the DCS system and was created as part of an overhaul in the way the agency tracked its clients. Instead of a file for each child, the agency was trying to move to a "family-centric" model for tracking its work, O'Day said.

But the system's shortcomings have made it difficult for caseworkers to enter information about the children under their watch and impossible to generate some reports on key measures of how well the agency has been doing. Those include caseloads for each caseworker and response times to child abuse and neglect reports.

That means the agency isn't able to accurately report the number of cases each staff member is handling. In the meeting with The Tennessean, O'Day did not have that figure at hand.

The computer spits out contradictory information about children put in temporary or emergency placements for more than 30 days, according to a federal court report that monitors the state's progress in the "Brian A" case.

The same report found that Child Protective Service workers looking for the history of a child in TFACTS could miss cases in which the history of abuse or neglect was reported under the name of another child, such as a sibling.

And the backlog of overdue investigations into reports of abuse or neglect -- those more than 30 days old -- were increasing because of caseworkers' inability to update the computer to reflect closed cases.

Defects reduced

Lee Gregory -- who was tapped to join the agency in January as deputy commissioner to resolve the TFACTS problems but had been involved with the TFACTS steering committee that evaluated and selected the system beginning in 2007 -- said Monday the agency is making its way through the list of problems. The 1,700 defects have been whittled down to just under 500, according to Gregory.

For example, the department has restored the ability to find previous reports on children, spokesman Brandon Gee said. But the department's computer system still can't determine how many cases each of its social workers are handling. That fix, Gee said, is "in progress."

In March, the comptroller identified some $2.5 million worth of skipped payments and overpayments generated by the computer system to foster parents and agencies. That figure has been reduced to $500,000 in current outstanding overpayments or underpayments, Gregory said.

"It is a very complex system with over 500 million lines of code," Gregory said. "When I came on board last year with the commissioner, I gave her a one-year plan and said we can ... get the fixes by the end of the calendar year and the majority of the defects by the end of this calendar year. A great majority of the fixes will be done at the end of this calendar year. Some stuff we're going to phase in over time."

Children's Rights, a New York-based child advocacy group, which filed the original "Brian A." suit against the state, now says the state has fallen short of meeting the requirements of the 12-year-old federal court order from that case.

O'Day said the state attorney general's office ultimately will determine whether Dynamics Research Corp., the Massachusetts contractor that created the TFACTS system, may be held liable for some of the costs to fix the system. That would include a decision about whether to pursue legal action, she said.

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