N.Y. child welfare system is in hot water, out of funding

N.Y. child welfare system is in hot water, out of funding

BY DONNA YOUNG | GCN STAFF

New York's Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System (SACWIS) is late, over budget and will cost another $53.7 million to meet federal government standards, according to a report by Maximus Inc. of McLean, Va. Furthermore, a state lawmaker charged that problems with the welfare system have put children at risk of abuse.

The state hired Maximus under a $7.6 million contract to monitor the implementation of the system, known as Connections.

The state's Children and Family Services Office oversees Connections. The system is supposed to track child protective, preventive, foster care and adoption service information statewide. The state receives more than 140,000 child abuse reports annually involving approximately 270,000 children. The office provides preventive and aftercare services to more than 80,000 families and oversees foster care for 48,000 children.

But Connections as currently programmed and deployed is not fully functional, not easy to use and does not provide case workers with the tools needed to manage the state's complex array of child welfare services, Maximus said. The company added that the system does not consistently reflect the state's structure, legal and policy framework.

The state in 1996 hired Accenture LLP of Chicago to develop Connections for $37.5 million. IBM Corp. provided hardware, software, maintenance, customer support and training under a $76.1 million contract.

But by 1998, IBM's contract had increased by $24.6 million to $100.7 million because of change orders. And Accenture's contract has now nearly tripled to over $100 million.

Connections was supposed to be implemented by September 1997. But, according to Maximus, Connections does not meet the needs of its users, is technically restrictive and does not meet federal requirements.

The federal Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 provided funds for states to automate child welfare information systems. From October 1993 through September 1997, the federal government paid 75 percent of SACWIS costs for states. But after September 1997, the funding rate dropped to 50 percent.

The federal government does not require states to participate in the program, according to the federal Children's Bureau, the agency that approves state child welfare systems. New York's system is classified by the bureau as partially operational.

No deadline

The federal government has not yet imposed a deadline on states that took federal funds to automate their child welfare systems. But if states that took the funds do not meet federal SACWIS requirements within a reasonable period'which has not been defined'they will have to pay back the funds, the bureau said.

William Van Slyke, New York's Children and Family Services spokesman, said most states have experienced cost overruns for their child welfare systems.

'The technology for SACWIS is more complicated than the first lunar space mission,' he said. 'I don't believe in any information technology work there is a static environment. You have to always expect things to be changing.'

A 1998 state audit warned that there were problems with Connections. The Comptroller's Office said in the audit that the final cost of implementation could exceed the planned contract amount.

The audit reported several weaknesses in the procedures used to plan, design, develop and implement the system. It said progress on the system was not formally monitored against a project schedule, system tests were not always thorough and system users were not adequately involved in system testing.

Robert Berton, Accenture's East State Client Group managing partner, said his company delivered the system on time.

'We were exactly on the schedule as specified by the state,' Berton said. 'When we went out for the bid, the one thing they wanted to make sure of is that they weren't going to be in danger of losing any federal money. We were able to do that.'

Only three of five

But according to the audit, as of April 1998, only three of the system's five segments had been implemented. And, the audit said, users were not satisfied with the completed segments.

A February 2000 state audit found that Connections equipment was missing and could not be accounted for in the New York City branches of the Child and Family Services Office. The audit also found that Connections inventory records were inaccurate and unreliable.

A recent report by the New York Assembly's Oversight, Analysis and Investigation Committee and the Children and Families Committee blasted Gov. George Pataki's administration for mismanaging the Connections project. According to the committees, system costs have now exceeded $362 million.

But Children and Family Services' Van Slyke disputed the assembly report.

'They were looking at future costs for maintenance and operations,' he said. 'The current costs are really only a little over $200 million to date.'

Julie Greenberg, chief of staff for Assemblyman Scott Stringer, chairman of the Oversight, Analysis and Investigation Committee, said the $362 million amount is well documented in the assembly report.

'It's clear how much money was spent and how much money was wasted and the Maximus report backs up the assembly's assertions,' Greenberg said. 'The vendors were overpaid and the costs of the project have skyrocketed.'

Following the release of the assembly report, members of the state assembly introduced a package of procurement bills aimed at reforming how New York buys goods and services.

Assemblyman Roger L. Green, chairman of the Children and Families Committee, said passage of the bills is critical for the state.

'We need some guarantee of reform before we give them any more money,' he said. 'My committee has chosen to not reappropriate future funding for Connections until we see reform. Children have been left vulnerable because of this system.'

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