Ministry child-welfare checks might mean calling police

Social workers unable to access the government’s child-welfare computer system are being told to check with police to see whether there are prior safety concerns about a family, documents show.

A memo to staff in the Ministry of Children and Family Development says a team of 30 technicians is working around the clock to fix the integrated case management system after a week of problems.

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Meanwhile, the ministry is advising social workers to run checks on families by reviewing paper files and using a separate ministry information system that does not include reports from the last three years. “If there is limited available information about the family and the report presents potential staff safety issues, social workers should use caution and contact police to determine if there are safety issues and ask for police support where appropriate,” states the memo, a copy of which was obtained by the NDP.

Opposition children’s critic Carole James said the memo reveals the ministry’s failure to deal with ongoing problems with the system.

“Two years ago the representative for children and youth urged the B.C. Liberals to put in place contingency plans,” she said. “Instead of listening, the Liberals waited until a week after the system had crashed to put in place even basic guidelines to child-protection workers.”

Technology Minister Andrew Wilkinson confirmed Thursday that the system was still experiencing “slowdowns” — less than a day after he assured the public all was well.

He said the $182-million system was up and running overnight Wednesday, but experienced further slowdowns on Thursday morning.

“So clearly this is still not acceptable,” he said. “We need to get to the bottom of this, get it fixed and get services back to the people who need them.”

Wilkinson and other cabinet ministers apologized in the legislature for the ongoing problems.

“We are sorry for those who have been inconvenienced by this episode,” he said.

“We’re going to get to the bottom of it, because the needs of those British Columbians who find themselves in need are our top priority.”

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.’s representative for children and youth, said the repeated failures are putting children and families at risk.

She said social workers have been calling her office in a panic at being unable to access information needed to keep children safe. Turpel-Lafond issued a safety warning about the system in 2012.

Children’s Minister Stephanie Cadieux said the ministry has emergency backup systems and that social workers can pull the hard copies of files and use the telephone to contact their counterparts in other offices.

“We have very talented, very professional social workers doing their jobs,” she said Thursday.

“Computers are a tool. They’re an important tool, but they’re not the only tool in the toolbox.”

She also confirmed that managers have been given access to a “read-only” copy of the integrated case management database so that they can check files on behalf of social workers.

Cadieux said privacy protections remain in place.

“What that does allow us though is to ensure that we have the accurate, up-to-date information available should it be required,” she said.

The independent Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner issued a statement on Thursday saying it was monitoring the situation.

“We have contacted an [integrated case management] representative to inquire about privacy and security as they seek to implement an interim solution that will allow employees to access information and data until the system is restored,” the statement said.

“As with all government databases and networked systems, we expect that strong privacy and security controls are in place to mitigate risk of data breaches or improper access in accordance with the law.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

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