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Computer switch jolts Children's Ministry

Jun 28 2012

B.C.'s child watchdog has sounded the alarm about a new $182-million government computer system that has overwhelmed and frustrated front-line social workers.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said in an interview she's concerned that the Children's Ministry has given social workers no time to learn the complicated new Integrated Case Management system, which went live in government offices April 1.

"The e-learning model of letting them learn off the side of their desk while they do their regular job was an inadequate plan," said Turpel-Lafond, who is delaying her summer holidays until the Ministry of Children and Family Development has a fix in place.

"It has gone very poorly and it should not continue."

The government has billed the new system as a much-needed replacement for 30-year-old software, saying it would better share client information across ministries, help flag safety issues and boost efficiency for front-line case workers.

But Turpel-Lafond said there are questions about the system's design and whether it is even suited to child-welfare work.

She met with Children's Minister Mary McNeil last week and urged her to seek additional money from the Finance Ministry to fix the problems, rather than divert money from front-line services.

"This is not an ordinary, expected set of glitches that you get when you roll out a system," Turpel-Lafond said. "This suggests that there have been some fundamental flaws in the implementation plan, but also in the design of the system."

Turpel-Lafond's concerns are echoed by more than 2,000 front-line workers, who are calling on government to scrap the system and start from scratch.

In one case, social workers are blaming the system for a glitch that allowed a B.C. mother to leave hospital with her baby when she wasn't permitted to do so. A safety alert that's part of the computer program was "hidden behind some tab they didn't know about," said Doug Kinna, chairman of a B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union committee that represents affected workers.

"The social worker went out and had to remove the child from the mother," he said. "It's a pretty serious safety concern."

The case was highlighted by NDP critic Claire Trevena in the legislature last month. However, the ministry said it launched a provincewide investigation and was unable to determine where, when, or even if, such an incident occurred.

Kinna said some social workers are "going home in tears" of frustration. The system can't properly generate documents for court cases, he said, and incomeassistance workers say it has increased workloads, requiring 21 mouse clicks to file a form that used to require seven.

The 17 online training modules offered weren't adequate for staff, he said.

Stephen Brown, deputy children's minister, acknowledged technical problems in a staff note on Monday, pledging to work on improvements by the end of the summer.

In an interview, Brown said his ministry expected challenges during the first 12 to 20 weeks of the system because it is such a large change within a busy ministry.

"It's not been worse at all than what was actually projected," he said, adding that he was not aware of any safety-related problems.

Even so, Brown said, he has clearly heard from his staff that they are stressed, that the software needs to be tweaked and that training - in some cases, oneon-one sessions - has to be increased and improved.

The government plans to roll out the Integrated Case Management system over the next three years.

lkines@timescolonist.com

rshaw@timescolonist.com

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