POLITICS

'Deeply flawed' case management program must be fixed: B.C. children's watchdog

07/19/2012 01:20 EDT | Updated 09/18/2012 05:12 EDT
VICTORIA - The British Columbia government admitted Thursday its $182-million program to improve information flow in the child welfare system needs to be fixed, after a report from a provincial watchdog concluded the database was deeply flawed and putting children at risk.

Children and Family Development Minister Mary McNeil said the integrated case-management system, which was supposed to make life easier for child protection workers since its introduction in April, already needs a tune-up.

"It isn't good. It's not right," said McNeil, who didn't flinch when reporters' questions described the program as a catastrophe.

She said the government is adding $12 million to her budget this year to offer better training on the system for front-line child protection workers.

McNeil said her ministry will hire 100 auxiliary child protection workers to allow full-time workers more time to learn and use the new system. The ministry also plans to add up to 50 auxiliary administrators to give people more time to get used to the system.

McNeil said she's also asked for an independent assessment of the program, with its results looking to inform longer term planning around the use of the system.

McNeil's statement came minutes after a press conference by B.C.'s independent children's representative, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who said the program is inadequate and can't ensure child safety.

"I have reached the point where I am making this rare public statement, as I strongly believe that (case-management system) is not adequate to provide safety to vulnerable children, youth and families in B.C.," Turpel-Lafond said. "I'm literally dealing with staff virtually in tears saying, 'I can't do this work.'"

The integrated case-management system project began in 2008 with plans to replace outdated government computer information used to deliver social programs, including child protection, child care subsidies and income assistance.

The government said the system would allow ministry staff to spend more time working directly with clients and less on data entry.

Turpel-Lafond said she started receiving concerns from front-line workers about difficulty conducting searches, finding records and preparing court documents shortly after the program started this past spring.

She provided several case examples that highlight the limitations of the new system. In one case, the system did not clearly identify the protections and dangers facing a two-month-old child who arrived at a B.C. hospital with broken bones that doctors concluded were not accidental.

Turpel-Lafond said the child's father, who later confessed to causing his child's injuries, was not clearly linked to the child's file and the child's grandmother. The grandmother was part of the child's safety plan and caregiver, was also not clearly linked to the child's record.

In the spring, the Opposition New Democrats told the legislature that social workers blamed the system for a glitch that allowed a mother to leave hospital with her baby when she wasn't permitted to do so.

McNeil said Thursday the government still cannot confirm the incident with the mother and child occurred.

The NDP's children's critic, Claire Trevena, said the system has proved to be a waste of money, but the government needs to take immediate action to get it working to ensure children are properly protected.

"We're now seeing some of the very potentially dangerous end results," said Trevena.

"It really shows once again the gross government mismanagement, huge costs and we don't really know what the outcome is going to be."

Deputy children's minister Stephen Brown announced Thursday in a ministry-wide letter that much of the third phase of the program slated for this year will be delayed to focus on training and strengthening use of the new system.

"We want to ensure you have the ability to focus on learning and using the new system knowing that critical work of protecting children, youth and families is not — and will not be — compromised," Brown's letter stated.

The B.C. Government and Service Employees Union, which represents the 2,000 front-line workers using the system, called for its replacement.

“Our members have been telling us the (case-management) system is dangerously flawed and that the haphazard implementation process has made matters even worse," said union president Darryl Walker in a statement.

"Turpel-Lafond confirms unequivocally what our members have been saying: this is the wrong computer system for the work being done. It needs to replaced."

The B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association issued a statement saying it has been raising concerns about the case-management system and the government's data-sharing plans since 2009.

The association called the system a "potential privacy quagmire."

"The many confident assurances of the system's reliability from a variety of ministers are now worthless," said the privacy association's statement. "They refused to listen to the numerous voices expressing concern about various aspects of the (system), and now they have put the public’s money, safety and personal information at severe risk."