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Child watchdog troubled by lack of fixes to system

Sep 12 2012

B.C.'s child watchdog says she is still deeply worried about flaws in a new government computer system, after an outpouring of complaints from social workers.

Two months after she issued a rare public safety warning about the situation, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said she remained "very concerned" about whether the problem-plagued $182-million Integrated Case Management System was appropriate for child protection, and what it may cost to fix.

"The caution that I expressed, that yellow to red light, continues to flash," said Turpel-Lafond. "We are not in any way out of the woods on this issue."

The provincial government promised in July that it would spend $12 million to hire extra staff and conduct an independent technical review of the computer system - a move that came after Turpel-Lafond publicly criticized the software for endangering the safety of vulnerable children.

She said the "flawed" system - which tracks child welfare cases - was plagued by duplicate case files, missing information, privacy breaches and a failure to properly record and display critical data for social workers.

In one case, a Vancouver Island woman flagged as a safety risk was able to leave hospital with her newborn because the social worker couldn't find the safety alert within the program.

The government action has yet to result in substantial improvements, Turpel-Lafond said. She said she has been unable to get details on how the system was procured or see the government contracts, and encouraged the auditor general to investigate.

Former children's minister Mary McNeil admitted something was "seriously not right" with the system in July and pledged quick work to fix problems.

McNeil was replaced by Stephanie Cadieux in last week's cabinet shuffle.

Turpel-Lafond said the computer problem was the top issue she raised during her first chat with Cadieux.

Cadieux said the improvements were her "first priority" as the new children's minister. "Clearly, it's not working the way it needs to for those workers right now," she said.

The ministry is rolling out improvements this month, has produced a new instruction manual and has hired Victoria-based Queenswood Consulting to complete a technical review by the end of November, Cadieux said.

Other enhancements could begin next April and additional staff are being hired, she said.

So far, the fixes haven't cost the government any money because they have been covered under its contract with builders, she said.

The computer system is also used by other ministries for social services, including welfare, disability and employment programs.

The Association of Service Providers for Employability and Career Training, which represents 175 employment agencies, said the government has moved quickly to address its complaints about privacy and other glitches. But, overall, the system remains "a dinosaur" that has added extra work and may not be fixable, said association CEO Norma Strachan.

"It seems like a mess," she said. "They are trying to do too much with one system."

rshaw@timescolonist.com

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