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Mass. child welfare agency hamstrung by old technology

Specialists now looking beyond the fax

Usually when a child goes missing, an emergency broadcast system called the Amber Alert uses sophisticated technology to blast text messages telling thousands of strangers to be on the lookout.

But in cases involving endangered children needing state supervision, Massachusetts is stuck in the fax age.

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Massachusetts is far from unique in being hamstrung by dated technologies; many other state welfare agencies also still rely on fax machines to communicate important alerts about child safety. But some are slowly experimenting with modern electronic systems that are prevalent in corporate America and even other government agencies.

“If FedEx knows where every package is, why can’t we know where every kid is?” said Daniel Stein, cofounder of Stewards of Change, a New York consulting firm that works with government health and social service agencies. “Why are we not applying that same level of rigor and quality control to kids and families?”

Stein’s organization is developing tools for child welfare workers to conduct Google-like searches that quickly collect the different information available on a case — from family histories to police reports, health records to support groups — and organize it on one screen.

Meanwhile, Florida is adopting big data tools of the kind used by retailers and marketers to better predict when a child is in imminent danger. California has an electronic reporting system intended to eliminate delays in notifying social workers and police departments of a new case or urgent situation.

Even Massachusetts is now giving social workers mobile tablets for use in the field, while agencies in Indiana, New York, and Pennsylvania are also exploring mobile technologies.

‘We are trying to make it very hard for a caseworker to screw up.’

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“The challenge across the country is how do child welfare agencies take advantage of modern technology,” said Charles Simon, policy director for Case Commons, a nonprofit that has developed case management software that child welfare systems can use to cull more information about families using techniques common to social media sites such as Facebook.

“The tools are there. The tools exist,” Simon said. “The challenge is bringing those tools to bear.”

Old technology figured in the most recent lapse in oversight by the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, as state officials acknowledged the agency misplaced for six days a report Grafton police faxed in early April about 1-month-old Aliana Lavigne. The child later died before a DCF caseworker could visit her home.

The child welfare system in Florida is reeling from similar tragedies and leadership turmoil as Massachusetts. There, though, the state is deploying sophisticated data analysis software for caseworkers to gauge the potential danger to children in suspected abuse situations. The technology is designed to share that information in real time with law enforcement and child welfare social workers.

“When we find high-risk scenarios, we send out alerts to all the stake holders,” said Greg Povolny, chief executive of Mindshare Technology, a Tampa company that designed the software. “We have text messages that go out and a mobile app that will alert caseworkers.”

Initial reports of suspected child abuse can be filed directly online at the Florida agency’s website and by traditional means such as phone and fax. Once a report is filed, the software system acts as a constant reminder, broadcasting alerts of meaningful changes in cases until a social worker confirms receiving the report.

“We are trying to make it very hard for a caseworker to screw up,” said Povolny. “One of the things we are doing is creating an accountability chain.”

Povolny said his company has had several discussions in recent months with Massachusetts DCF officials about the state using Mindshare’s technology.

In Massachusetts, the new mobile tablets would allow social workers to access case files remotely, improve record keeping, and, importantly, enhance communications with police and other law enforcement agencies.

In March the agency assigned 54 iPads to on-call supervisors, and another 2,000 mobile devices will go to social workers this summer.

Meanwhile the Amber Alert has been successful in helping to locate missing children, and one of the companies behind the technology said it could be equally useful in the analogous situation of child abuse reports. The Amber Alert was updated last year to include text messages as another way to quickly notify people of a missing child; since then, officials said the additional technology has led to the rescue and safe return of nine children.

In each state a local agency — the State Police in Massachusetts — serves as a central contact point for reports of missing children. That agency issues urgent notifications that are broadcast over local TV and radio, on nearby highway signs, and texted to cellphone users in a given location.

A similar system could be designed to quickly notify social workers, for example, of new child abuse allegations, said Julia Howard, vice president of operations for Amber Alert GPS, the Utah company that administers the missing child system for nine states.

“It would take a little bit of engineering, but it could be modified,” said Howard. “There would be a way, people just have to open the dialog about it.”

Even so, child welfare specialists contend that a simple phone call remains the most effective way to report a case of suspected abuse.

Molly Jenkins, a research analyst with the American Humane Association, said a direct conversation is often the only way to convey detailed and nuanced information that child welfare officials need to know, especially when determining whether a child needs to be rescued from a situation and how soon.

“So much of it depends on the story, and what you noticed,” said Jenkins.

But as specialists in child welfare caution, no one technology, however new and sophisticated, can completely compensate for human error or sloppy work.

Indeed, even the electronic reporting system in California hasn’t solved the persistent challenge of urgently fielding new reports of suspected child abuse.

Again, the culprit is human nature. In Los Angeles County, many child protection and law enforcement agencies don’t use the electronic system, according to a recent review by the commission charged with fixing the region’s ongoing child abuse problems. Instead those agencies prefer their existing systems, even if they risk repeating the same oversights.

For example, most law enforcement agencies in LA still use fax machines to receive child abuse reports, yet many often don’t check the machines for new submissions for hours at a time, sometimes days, the commission said in a recent report.

Of course, other electronic messaging systems, including e-mail and texts, can be just as easily overlooked by harried or forgetful social workers, child welfare specialists point out. In their view, no matter what technology is deployed, the onus remains on the people working in the protection services to use it correctly.

“Whether it’s a fax machine, a phone call, a tweet, or a text,” said Theresa Pardo, director of the Center for Technology in Government at the University at Albany, if the information isn’t handled properly, “the technology is irrelevant.”

More coverage:

Police fax on Grafton infant was lost

DCF failed to protect Lynn baby, report says

Veteran manager Erin Deveney takes over as child welfare chief

Mass. is leaving more youths in troubled homes

Savage toll of abuse for children in DCF care

Timeline: Child welfare agency’s woes

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeMBFarrell. Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.
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