Will state scrap $231M child welfare computer system?

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Problems persist for the Michigan Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System

Lansing — Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services is considering whether to scrap or salvage a problem-plagued child welfare computer system that has cost the state $231 million since 2011, officials said Wednesday.

The state is expected to decide the fate of the Michigan Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System by June 27, when it reports back to a federal judge who last week called the state's ongoing child welfare issues “depressing.”

The computer system, first rolled out in 2014, continues to generate “an unmanageable backlog of defects, incidents and data fixes that are likely to persist indefinitely,” an outside expert said in a recent report for Judge Nancy Edmunds. The flaws “negatively affect outcomes for children and families.”

But the state is “not necessarily wedded to the system” and is “very, very critically looking at how to improve the situation,” Farah Hanley, deputy director of financial operations for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, told a Senate committee.

The department is exploring "what a better alternative would be — if there is one out there," Hanley said Wednesday. 

Lawmakers grilled state health officials over the system known as MiSACWIS as they consider additional funding requests for the department next fiscal year.

The troubled computer system amounts to $230 million in taxpayer funding “thrown out the window,” said Sen. Pete MacGregor, R-Rockford, who chairs the budget subcommittee. “It’s just a huge frustration.”

Michigan’s child welfare program has operated under some form of a court order since 2006, and Edmunds is now monitoring steps toward a revised agreement approved in February 2016 under former Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer inherited the case after taking office in January. New Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon appeared in federal court last week to outline his plans to improve child welfare outcomes across the state.

Consultant Kurt Heisler, in his report to the federal judge, recommended the state purchase or develop a new computer system that “does not rely, in any significant way” on the current one. MiSACWIS has cost $231 million to build, upgrade, maintain and operate this decade.

The computer system serves 7,942 users in all 83 Michigan counties, 60 private agency foster care contractors and 45 child-caring institutions, including abuse or neglect centers, according to the report. 

State officials have met multiple times in the past week and are working on plans to address ongoing issues with the computer system, Health and Human Services official Steve Schreier told lawmakers.

There were problems “from the start,” he said, including a flawed data migration operation and poor training, which meant users around the state “didn’t understand how to use it.”

Sen. John Bizon, R-Battle Creek, questioned why vendors paid to design the system have not been “held responsible” for its flaws.

“Most of the time when you buy a car and it doesn’t run, you take it back to the dealer and you’re going to ask for your money back,” Bizon said.

“It seems like this is such a different model where we pay for the car and then we pay for the upgrades to the car and then we pay for the upgrades to the upgrades, and I don’t see the liability.”

The computer system was designed by Unisys Corp. of Pennsylvania, but the state has since contracted with Conduent Inc. of Maryland to provide ongoing support.

“There have been some challenges in changing vendors and in changing the mindset of how we support the system as a whole,” Schreier said.  

“We can do better.”