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Children's watchdog says computer system for social workers a “colossal failure”

Senior government officials should be held accountable for the “colossal failure” of government’s new computer system for front-line social workers, the province’s child watchdog says.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.Õs representative for children and youth, issued a challenge for schools to help youth in care get a post-secondary education Ñ a call that inspired a $200,000 donation.

Senior government officials should be held accountable for the “colossal failure” of government’s new computer system for front-line social workers, the province’s child watchdog says.

Representative for Children and Youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said a consultant’s report — released Thursday by the province — confirms her warning last year about the dire state of the $182-million integrated case management system.

“We’re in deep trouble,” she said. “This is a deeply serious problem.”

The consultant’s report said previous ministry officials failed to properly monitor the computer system’s development and didn’t push for changes that would have created a system fit for child-care work.

The software was developed during a time of significant change in the ministry and there was inadequate knowledge, resources or leadership to get the right solution in place, the report said.

Turpel-Lafond characterized the findings as “brutal” and said government had a duty to investigate how the mistakes happened and chart a course forward.

“This report speaks to incompetent stewardship of [integrated case management] by government,” she said. “And whether the manufacturers of the product play a role in that, I don’t know, but I think it needs a deeper look.”

The integrated case management system went online last April, linking information on thousands of social assistance and child welfare clients, including sensitive details on child abuse, custody disputes and welfare payments.

Social workers complained that the new system was too complicated and buried critical child safety information under a series of hidden tabs.

The ministry has worked to streamline the forms, with as many as 90 tweaks to make things more functional, said Stephen Brown, deputy minister of Children and Family Development.

The government is working with Turpel-Lafond to review whether other computer systems might do a better job handling child protection cases, Brown said. That could take until the summer. It’s also possible the review might come back with suggested fixes rather than a replacement, he said.

There’s also a team of 15 to 20 people working to review approximately 20,000 child-care cases to see if the computer system properly recorded the right information or if something is missing, Brown said.

The government has said the software appears to work well for the Ministry of Social Development, but not for child welfare.

Plans to expand the troubled software into mental health, youth justice and adoption cases have been halted.

Turpel-Lafond said Brown, who inherited the problem, deserves credit for his tireless work on the issue and should not have to take full responsibility for fixing the problems.

Nor, she said, can the repairs be accomplished with the $12 million earmarked by the ministry for fixes.

“With all due respect, I think that’s patently ridiculous,” she said. “I cannot see that. That does not make sense to me. They don’t have the money to do it.”

Brown said he believes the funding is adequate, but will approach Children and Family Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux for more money if needed.

NDP critic Claire Trevena said the government has lost control of the project.

“Are we still tinkering with something that can’t be fixed?” she asked. The ministry needs to decide whether to abandon the software for something that ensures child safety, she said.

Meanwhile, the government is wasting time and money at the expense of vulnerable children who need help, Turpel-Lafond said.

“I’m still looking at a mess, and I haven’t seen today the plan to fully get out of that mess.”