Screens for Basic Information

By David F. Carr  |  Posted 2003-03-19 Print this article Print

A 6-year-old Florida girl in foster care disappeared. In New Jersey, a 7-year-old died. How computer systems fail to protect the most vulnerable.

"20 Screens for Basic Information"">
"20 Screens for Basic Information"

Protective investigators have been working online longer, tracking summary information about each case through an existing computer system. But now investigators and caseworkers alike will record detailed case notes in Florida's Web-based system called HomeSafenet.

"Nobody's supposed to do a paper-and-pencil investigation and put it in a file anymore," says James Walker, assistant program administrator for child protective investigations at the Broward County Sheriff's Office, which handles abuse and neglect cases in the Fort Lauderdale area for DCF. "Nobody can say, 'I'm working on it, it's in my file' or 'we've lost that file.'"

Ultimately, the benefit will be a complete online record of why the state has intervened, what service it has promised and the results.

Not that HomeSafenet is all there yet. It began rolling out in July 2001, with a release targeting foster care, but many caseworkers labeled it clunky. DCF Secretary Jerry Regier, who started work in September, acknowledged the flaws. "When a worker has to go through 20 screens to put in basic information, we've got a problem," he was quoted as saying.

For abuse and neglect cases, Broward protective investigators use the new Child Safety Assessment module, which is supposed to be deployed statewide this summer. But workers are encountering similar usability issues. For example, if records on one of the participants in a case need to be updated—say, if Mom has remarried, changed her name, or moved and received a new phone number—investigators have to click through to a different screen of the Web-based application to update each detail, rather than work with a single profile screen for that person. While demonstrating some of HomeSafenet's flaws, Walker shakes his head and says, "Some of this is really barbaric."

Yet, Walker sees great potential for the Child Safety Assessment, which guides investigators through a systematic process of evaluating risk factors for each child. For example, because young children are more likely to die of abuse or neglect, age is one of the first questions.

"Getting people to do the job in a standardized way is really important," Walker says. Otherwise, each investigator applies a slightly different standard for what constitutes abuse or neglect. "I'm not thrilled by the extremely complicated development process, but I am thrilled by what this will allow us to do," he adds.

Rona Baldini, a case manager employed by the Sarasota (Fla.) YMCA, has her own list of complaints about HomeSafenet, but also sees some benefits. The Web-based system makes it easier to collaborate with other caseworkers—for example, when a child she is responsible for is placed with a relative in another part of the state. In the future, HomeSafenet will also let workers review the case history when a mother is trying to regain custody. "You'll be able to see things like how often Mom moves around and the people she's hung out with," Baldini says.

David F. Carr David F. Carr is the Technology Editor for Baseline Magazine, a Ziff Davis publication focused on information technology and its management, with an emphasis on measurable, bottom-line results. He wrote two of Baseline's cover stories focused on the role of technology in disaster recovery, one focused on the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and another on the City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.David has been the author or co-author of many Baseline Case Dissections on corporate technology successes and failures (such as the role of Kmart's inept supply chain implementation in its decline versus Wal-Mart or the successful use of technology to create new market opportunities for office furniture maker Herman Miller). He has also written about the FAA's halting attempts to modernize air traffic control, and in 2003 he traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia to report on the role of technology in United Nations peacekeeping.David joined Baseline prior to the launch of the magazine in 2001 and helped define popular elements of the magazine such as Gotcha!, which offers cautionary tales about technology pitfalls and how to avoid them.

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