Audit: Welfare-system computers limited by WiFi access

ATLANTA (Morris News) – A computer system taxpayers paid $50 million to install and $14 million annually to run as a way to improve protection of abused children contains outdated information, according to a state audit released late Wednesday.
The problem, according to a review by the Department of Audits and Accounts, is that while social workers have laptop and tablet computers while they’re out in the field to enter data immediately, they don’t have a way to connect to the Internet.
As a result, auditors found that nearly one-third of the 60,000 cases of alleged child abuse or neglect were entered into the system five days after they were received or later. That percentage could actually be higher because the system doesn’t prevent workers from backdating the data.
“Inaccurate dates in the system could affect child safety, federal compliance, and, potentially, federal funding,” the auditors wrote.
In 2008, the Division of Family and Children Services within the Department of Human Services began using the SHINES computerized system. The Accenture consulting firm had been working on it for two years before it began running.
The audit, conducted at the request of the House Appropriations Committee, found the computers work as designed and that installation was mostly within the budget, with federal taxpayers picking up $26 million of the cost. It was to be an improvement over having computers keep the records in each of the agency’s offices around the state where they could not share data.
Since 2004, 3,500 laptops have been available for the social workers, and they have been updated since to allow them to tie into the virtual private network created to keep the data secure and confidential.
But the social workers can only tap into the Internet at Wi-Fi hotspots like coffee shops, fast-food restaurants and public libraries. The auditors found that was a major reason data was entered late so often, but it also found that 45 percent of the time social workers made their visits to investigate abuse and neglect allegations before the data showed up in the system.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services said Thursday the auditors were correct in observing that timely, accurate data was critical to the system’s effectiveness, but that addressing the needs of children was a higher priority.

“The safety of children is our greatest concern. 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 into SHINES after the home visit and the child’s safety has been assessed,” said Ravae Graham, spokeswoman and director of legislative affairs.

It remains to be seen whether the audit will prompt legislators to pay for devices like smart phones and air cards that would allow social workers to go online anywhere.

House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, was in Washington Thursday for the swearing in of former colleague Doug Collins as the state’s newest congressman. England said he hadn’t seen the report and wouldn’t be able to read it until the weekend.

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