Tigers fire general manager Al Avila

Audit: Computer system poses risk to child safety

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – Michigan’s 3-year-old computer system designed to manage child welfare cases remains flawed and is “posing a risk to child and worker safety,” according to a critical state audit that department officials say has already resulted in corrective actions.

The Michigan Office of Auditor General’s report points to continued troubles with the automated case-management system, initially developed by a third-party vendor UniSys under an $87 million state contract.

The computer system prompted complaints on launch and remains unpopular with a majority of caseworkers who are forced to use it, according to a survey conducted by auditors.

The audit identified four major issues with the “mission-critical information system” used by about 7,000 state employees, contractors and court workers for child protective services, adoption, foster care, juvenile justice and child abuse prevention services for children and families.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Technology, Management and Budget implemented the computer system in 2014, but did not finalize procedures to merge duplicate records. This made it difficult for caseworkers to perform reviews, determine child safety options and conduct checks in a registry that lists child abusers, according to the audit.

Nearly three of four caseworkers surveyed by auditors said they had difficulty determining the appropriate person to add to a case, and 68 percent said they had spent “excessive time” cleaning up case information.

The state health and technology management departments agreed they had not fully implemented procedures to identify and merge multiple records but said they have made “significant efforts” to provide direction on how to manage and deactivate duplicate records.

“We agree that there are issues with (the Michigan Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System) that need to be improved – and MDHHS has made significant improvements to the system,” said spokesman Bob Wheaton. “However, we do not believe there are any remaining risks to child or worker safety.”

Auditors found the state departments also failed to ensure that a caseworker was assigned to all open child welfare cases in the computer system. Of the 69,722 active cases, 208 did not have a caseworker assigned, a relatively small percentage that auditors still said was problematic.

“Without an assigned caseworker, necessary home visits, needs assessments, and payments may not occur which could negatively affect a child’s welfare,” the report said.

As a result of the audit, the state health department reviewed all 208 cases that were not assigned and determined they should have been closed during the conversion to the new system.

“This did not negatively impact any child’s welfare,” the department said in an official response.

Auditors said the health department did not create an appropriate process to recoup over-payments to service providers, resulting in misspent state money and the need to repay federal funds. The health department used the program to identify over-payments to 343 child welfare providers totaling $7.9 million but is reviewing them for accuracy.

The department said the automated computer system was updated to handle recoupment functionality in June 2016 and told auditors staff is working to make it fully operational.

The audit also highlighted $1 million in potential duplicate payments to beneficiaries and service providers, saying the state departments did not have sufficient controls in the computer system to prevent the inaccurate payments.

Auditors said $111,591 in payments were made for service authorizations that had already been flagged as “created in error” and others were made for unauthorized service periods.

The state departments said the duplicate payment scenarios are no longer an issue. They were caused by a system defect identified after the computer system was implemented, and project staff has subsequently fixed them, according to their official response.

A survey conducted by auditors found 57 percent of caseworkers who use the automated management system are unhappy with it. A majority do not use a related cell phone application, but among those who do, 77 percent said they were not satisfied with it.

Jim Walkowicz, DHHS chairperson for the UAW Local 6000’s labor management team, said he had not seen the full audit but was not surprised by user concerns with the computer system. His union represents more than 2,000 state social service specialists who use it.

“There were a lot of complaints in the beginning,” he said. “I think little by little the complaints have gone down, but it is far from being a perfect system.”

Walkowicz said state employees initially complained about the system shutting down in the middle of their work and continue to voice concerns that usability issues are slowing their pace.

“What I’ve heard people say a lot is, ‘We thought we were social workers, and we’re really just dealing with a computer,’” Walkowicz said. “That takes so much time away from the job just trying to work the system.”

Wheaton said HHS will continue to work with its users to improve the automated computer system, noting it has already worked closely with caseworkers to address issues they’ve identified.

“Users have become more comfortable with the system, but it’s an ongoing improvement process,” he said.