State to launch child welfare computer-tracking system

ATLANTA - Child welfare caseworkers in Georgia will be able to keep closer tabs on their charges through a new computer-tracking system announced by Gov. Sonny Perdue Thursday.

The state Division of Family and Children Services has received federal approval to launch the system as a pilot project in Douglas County next year, the governor said during a news conference at his Capitol office. If all goes well, it would be put in place statewide in 2007, he said.

"If you don't have information on children in the mobile society we have today, you're asking for problems,'' Perdue said.

"People who work in our child welfare system will know more, be able to manage better and achieve better outcomes. ... It really will make a difference in the lives of children.''

Georgia's child welfare agency has been rocked repeatedly in recent years, going back to former Gov. Roy Barnes' tenure, by deaths from abuse or neglect of children whose cases were known to DFCS but not acted upon.

One strategy for improving its track record has been hiring hundreds of additional caseworkers.

Another has been working with the federal government toward launching a computer-tracking system in Georgia that would help caseworkers monitor the whereabouts of children under their supervision.

B.J. Walker, commissioner of the state Department of Human Resources, said that's difficult to do today using the hodgepodge of local systems.

"If a child and family moves from one county to another, our system wasn't able to track them,'' she said. "This will give us a statewide information system with data on all children and access to all information by caseworkers.''

The state has been working with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services since the early 1990s on gaining approval for the Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System.

That delay is among the reasons legislative Democrats have balked at putting millions of dollars into recent state budgets in anticipation of bringing the system on line.

Democratic lawmakers also have raised concerns about the hefty price tag.

On Thursday, Perdue said the system will cost $40 million, to be split evenly between the state and federal governments.

"I'm very aware that the children most at risk in this state need a better information collecting system,'' said Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, former director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic at Emory University. "(But) I'm nervous about whether it will result in better outcomes for children.''

Oliver suggested it might have been more cost effective to improve connectivity between county DFCS offices rather than replacing the system statewide.

Walker said the pilot project will allow the initiative to be tested on a limited basis, through "real-world scenarios,'' before extending it across the state.

Douglas County was chosen for its moderate size, diverse population and location within metro Atlanta.

The contract for the system, signed this week, was awarded to Accenture LLP, an international consulting and technology services company with experience in 30 states.