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Audit: Oregon child welfare tracking system 'adequate' but needs work
Register-Guard - 2/6/2020
The information system used by the Oregon Department of Human Services for tracking millions of records and people involved with child welfare is "adequate" but needs work.
That's especially true when it comes to making sure critical data is tracked properly and that caseworkers receive necessary training, according to a state audit released Wednesday.
The Oregon Secretary of State report found improvements were needed on the almost-decade-old OR-Kids tracking system.
"Child Welfare is a complex program with multiple steps," auditors said in the report, adding that those steps require tracking and organization.
In a statement, Rebecca Jones Gaston, director of the Oregon Child Welfare Program, said agency officials appreciated the report and its acknowledgment of the ongoing work to improve OR-Kids efficiency and usability.
"As we transform our Child Welfare system into one focused on prevention, safety and improving outcomes for children and families, data integrity and accessibility will continue to be a top priority," she said.
Jones Gaston began leading the program in September following the abrupt departure of the previous director.
In the 2018 fiscal year, the department served 11,445 children who spent at least one day in foster care and received 84,233 reports of abuse and neglect.
More than half of those reports were referred to Child Protective Services workers for investigation.
The OR-Kids system was implemented in 2011 to track and manage thousands of those child welfare cases. Its database contains more than 600 million records on 1.8 million people associated with 448,000 closed and 31,000 open cases.
Child Welfare has come under scrutiny in recent years for how they handle those cases. Many have accused of agency of being disorganized, inconsistent and of putting children in the system's care at risk, according to the report.
"An audit released by our office in 2018 found that DHS and Child Welfare struggled with chronic and systemic management shortcomings, lacked sufficient placement options to meet the needs of at-risk children, and faced staffing challenges that compromised the program's ability to perform essential Child Welfare functions," auditors said.
They found poorly planned initiatives, including the 2011 roll out of OR-Kids, undermined the agency's efforts to improve child safety.
Upgrade work cost $74 million
Before OR-Kids, Child Welfare used an outdated legacy system to manage cases. To help Oregon meet reporting requirements, the federal government funded 50% of the costs for a replacement computer system.
The department accepted a bid in 2008 from CGI Technologies and Solutions, Inc. for the company to create an Oregon version of a Wisconsin system for under $30 million.
The project ended up costing a total of $74 million.
And despite being activated in 2011, the department did not fully accept the system due to significant defects. DHS took over the operation of the system in 2013. When it took over, OR-Kids still had more than 500 unsolved bugs or change requests.
In the ensuing years, audits by the Secretary of State's office found serious problems with the OR-Kids system's financial processing function. In 2014, auditors found it was erroneously adjusting expenditure funding, resulting in about $24 million of federal funding overdraws.
The report noted that DHS has taken "positive strides" in identifying risks and programmatic issues to improve child welfare outcomes. After an unflattering audit of the foster care program was released by the Secretary of State's office in 2018, the agency took steps to adopt the recommendations made in the audit.
A 2019 follow-up found they had made significant progress.
"Although extensive work remained, the agency made progress on all 24 recommendations, including taking steps to adopt a data-driven decision-making strategy," according to the report.
The recent audit found that OR-Kids adequately performed basic case management functions but its usability and information gaps had some concerned about the reliability of the data it generated.
Caseworkers are expected to use the system to record and track all information associated with a child welfare case, including the first reports of abuse or neglect, foster care placements, safety plans and face-to-face meetings.
"While the OR-Kids computer system collects and reports basic case management information, some users and managers do not trust the reports," auditors said. "Users also find the system difficult to navigate and have trouble using it to see and understand how people have interacted with the Child Welfare program."
Employee survey critical of system
An anonymous survey from employees found the system navigation was cumbersome and work can sometimes be lost. The display screens also tended to be small and could not be expanded.
Many users also said there is no simple, intuitive way to find critical information and identify the history and circumstances of a given person in the child welfare system.
Auditors noted that how time-consuming it can be to discern whether a person has ever been a perpetrator of child abuse.
"This information is critical when researching people associated with new screening reports or evaluating relatives for possible emergency placements," they said.
During one exercise, they had to click through 42 times to determine this vital information.
According to the report, critical information about the number of available foster beds was not tracked consistently in OR-Kids.
The audit recommended more staffing training, controls to ensure complete, accurate and reliable data, and close monitoring as DHS works to make sure OR-Kids meets new federal requirements.
In a letter to the Secretary of State's Audits Division, Jones Gaston agreed with the office's six recommendations and provided target dates ranging from June 2020 to June 2021.
She said three of the six recommendations were already in progress.
"To ensure sustained, appropriate governance of OR-Kids, discussions are underway between Child Welfare and the Office of Information Services on ways to improve governance," Jones Gaston said.
For questions, comments and news tips, email reporter Whitney Woodworth at email@example.com, call 503-399-6884 or follow on Twitter @wmwoodworth.
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