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Computer flaws putting children at risk: watchdog

Jul 20 2012

A troubled new government computer system is getting extra money, staff and an external review after the province's child watchdog blasted the software for endangering the safety of vulnerable children.

Children's representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond slammed the $182-million Integrated Case Management System on Thursday, saying social workers can't keep children safe when the software - which is supposed to log sensitive information on such things as abusive relationships and foster-child status - fails to properly record and display critical data.

"I have reached the point where I am making this rare public statement, as I strongly believe that ICM is not adequate to provide safety to vulnerable children and families in British Columbia," she told reporters at the legislature.

The new computer system, which links multiple ministries together, went live April 1 after years of development.

Turpel-Lafond said she has been overwhelmed by complaints from front-line government workers, who say hard-to-find safety alerts, duplicate case files, missing information, casesensitive searches and poor training are causing dangerous situations.

One of the most serious cases appears to involve a pregnant Vancouver Island woman who was deemed a safety risk and was supposed to have her baby seized after its birth. But social workers couldn't find the safety alert in the new computer system, and the woman walked out of hospital with the child. Government officials were forced to scramble to find the baby.

Children and Family Development Minister Mary McNeil said Thursday she was "very concerned" about the case and was investigating.

McNeil admitted something is "seriously not right" with how the computer system is performing.

The minister announced $12 million to hire 150 auxiliary staff to help cover an increased workload. The government is also hiring an independent expert to examine the system's technical issues. Future expansion plans have been put on hold, and extra training is being offered, she said.

The software was supposed to replace 30-year-old computer systems that couldn't share information between ministries responsible for social services and child welfare. Fixing that cross-ministry gap is still important, McNeil said.

Deputy children's minister Stephen Brown said he thinks the software can be fixed. Taxpayers won't be on the hook for extra costs because the companies contracted to build the system are required to make technical changes, he said.

Privacy advocates had warned that the system was a privacy nightmare because "digital dossiers" of clients could be abused. The government has insisted workers are limited in what information they access.

But Turpel-Lafond confirmed several breaches where sensitive information was inappropriately viewed.

"I am concerned about some of these specific examples," said privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham, adding that her office would review the allegations. The auditor general has also been alerted.

rshaw@timescolonist.com

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