Poor Systems Fail Missing Kids

Most of the systems that failed Rilya Wilson were not computerized.

PDF DownloadWhen the 6-year-old girl was discovered missing from a foster-care home in Miami, Fla., in April 2002, it turned out the case worker assigned to check on her at least once a month had not seen her in at least 15 months. Rilya still hasn’t been found. The state later admitted it had lost track of 393 children in its care; 290 were found by year’s end but others were still missing.

The scandal points to a broken system of supervision and accountability, but another factor was a long-promised computer system that was still being debugged when Rilya disappeared. Until recently, Florida’s child-welfare cases were kept mostly on paper—three or four phone-book-sized binders where crucial details could be buried.

Since 1993, the U.S. Administration for Children and Families (ACF) has provided matching funds to encourage states to create integrated systems for tracking children in foster care and investigating abuse and neglect. So far, 36 states have put in place at least partially operational systems. Florida has been working on what ACF calls a Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System (SACWIS) since 1994, and expects to spend $230 million by the time it is completed in 2005.

At least Florida has been working on it. In New Jersey, which just now is preparing a request for proposals to install a welfare-information system, the death of Faheem Williams called attention to inadequate case management. In January, the 7-year-old boy was found dead in the basement of a Newark home, locked in along with two brothers. Although the family’s record of abuse and neglect reports dated to 1992, a state worker closed the case in 2001 without visiting the children.

While not a cure-all, SACWIS can help managers monitor activities of field workers by proving reports on children seen and not seen, cases opened and closed. “One of the weaknesses we see in child welfare is a lack of adequate supervision,” says Susan Orr, director of the children’s bureau at ACF.

Clearly, computer systems alone can’t protect children. In Florida’s Rilya Wilson case, the state caseworker reportedly had been working a second job some of the time she was supposed to be visiting children and was fired after she admitted falsifying child-visit reports. It might have been possible to falsify notes in a computer system as well. But without a computerized process for recording and reporting on the progress of each case, it has been hard for supervisors to identify and correct even honest oversights.

“To me, that’s a no-brainer,” says Florida’s former Department of Children and Families (DCF) Chief Information Officer Randy Niewenhous. “The real question is, why wasn’t it done a long time ago?”

Sadly, whether the issue is improving information systems or reducing excessive caseloads, action tends to be driven by scandals. Before Rilya Wilson, the 1998 death of Kayla McKean—a 6-year-old who was murdered by her father after numerous abuse reports to the state—focused Florida’s attention on the need to systematically identify high-risk cases. Florida now conducts an annual study of children who died after at least one prior report of abuse or neglect. The most recent report, in December, found 35 such deaths in 2001.

Different types of child-welfare cases are handled by different people. Protective investigators respond to complaints of abuse or neglect and decide whether they are substantiated. Child welfare caseworkers are responsible for long-term monitoring of the well-being of children in foster care or other programs. In Florida, responsibilities also are divided among workers employed directly by DCF, by regional agencies such as sheriff’s offices, and, increasingly, by private organizations.