Children are falling through the digital cracks
by The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
January 09, 2013 12:00 AM | 1576 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Five years ago, the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services could compile electronic records of child abuse reports only within each of its regional offices around the state. In 2008, the state spent $50 million to install a new statewide tracking and data-sharing system for DFACS.

But any system is only as effective as the people using it. And according to a just-published state review, about three-quarters of child abuse reports are being entered late, and almost one-third of them five or more days late.

The Department of Audits & Accounts reported last week that although there are more than 3,500 laptops available for DFACS workers to file reports into the statewide database, in the year that ended in June 2011 more than 46,000 reports were not filed into the system on the day they were received.

Morris News Service noted that the number of late reports could actually be higher, because there’s no safeguard against workers backdating them. (People here no doubt recall the arrests last year of two DFACS supervisors in the Columbus office on charges of manipulating or destroying reports.)

We’re talking about some big numbers that represent a lot of at-risk Georgia children.

The report notes that late and/or inaccurate reporting could jeopardize federal funding for child services in Georgia. More to the point, it jeopardizes child safety.

Some of the problem reportedly rests not with the case workers — whose nigh-unmanageable case loads have been a matter of record — but with a critical limitation on the technology: The social workers’ laptops and tablets don’t automatically connect to the Internet. So a worker responding to a report has to go somewhere with Web access to file it.

If the more immediate need is to ensure the safety of a child, the report has to wait. “Therefore, if we receive a phone call indicating a child is unsafe, we would opt to make the home visit as soon as possible, even if that means the report would be entered later,” a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services told Morris.

But that doesn’t come close to explaining why 31 percent of the reports still weren’t entered into the system five or more days after they were received. That’s a dangerously long time for an abused, neglected or otherwise at-risk child to have to wait for help. If case workers had access to air cards or smart phones they could file reports immediately, from anywhere. But the system already costs $14 million a year to operate, and Georgia’s budget will again be tight.

Technology aside, there clearly needs to be better internal oversight to ensure reports are filed in a timely fashion. If the first priority is the safety of the child, getting that child’s name and circumstances into the system as soon as possible is critical.
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