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Pennsylvania still lacks computerized child welfare system network

| Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011

Four-year-old Kristen Tatar's emaciated body was wrapped in garbage bags, stuffed inside a picnic cooler and left out with the trash at her parents Armstrong County home.

Her death in 2003 brought calls for creation of a computerized network that would allow all counties and the state to share information about children receiving child welfare services anywhere in Pennsylvania.

Eight years later, that network does not exist.

Kristen had been removed several times from her parents because of neglect when they lived in Westmoreland County. She even spent a year in foster care. Her parents later moved to Parks in Armstrong County. Armstrong County child welfare authorities said they asked for but didn't receive information from Westmoreland County about the child.

Kristen's father, James, and her mother, Janet Crawford, received life sentences for Kristen's death from starvation.

Officials in Armstrong and Westmoreland counties cited flaws in the state's child-welfare system that made it difficult to obtain the case histories of children whose families moved from one county to another.

About 192,000 children received child welfare services in Pennsylvania in 2009-2010.

Some steps have been taken but it may not be until 2015 that a $85.8 million system linking all counties and the state is fully operational, said Cathy Utz, director of the state Department of Public Welfare's bureau of policy, programs and operations.

The project has been delayed because it is expensive and labor-intensive, she said. Pennsylvania's 67 counties also have technological capabilities ranging from sophisticated to rudimentary.

"Having the exact same system in every single county in Pennsylvania really wasn't the best option," said Utz, who noted even her department uses mostly paper records today.

"It's a fundamental reflection how in so many ways, these kids' vulnerabilities are not on people's radar screens," said Cathy Palm, head of the Protect our Children Committee, a statewide coalition to prevent child abuse.

Chuck Songer, executive director of the Pennsylvania Children and Youth Administrators Association, said that while he's aware of a lack of centralized information, "a lot counties have developed sophisticated systems over the years ... Other counties, up to a couple years ago, were still using 3-by-5 inch cards to keep track of their records ... so we've come a long way."

State welfare officials say a fix is a priority.

"Especially (for) children who go into the system at a young age, a lot of them come from very tough situations and you do not want to make their lives any more difficult than they have to be," said Timothy Costa, executive deputy secretary for the state welfare department.

Nationwide, 36 states and the District of Columbia have implemented a federally recommended information-sharing network, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Four states are developing a network.

Ten states, including Pennsylvania, are working on a different system. Pennsylvania's system will fulfill federal requirements, officials said.

In the mid-1990s, Congress began requiring states to provide child-welfare data to the federal government and asked states to create a Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System. Congress has provided more than $1 billion in matching funds to assist states.

County agencies have until July to choose from one of several of state-approved systems, Utz said.

To date, 64 of 67 counties made a choice.

Randolph Brockington, deputy director for the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, said the county began rolling out its data system about three years ago to replace a paper-based system.

A year ago, a statewide index listing all children receiving any kind of service became available, Utz said.

She said the list, while short on details, makes it much more difficult for a case like Kristen's to occur.

"When a family moves, Armstrong County today could go in and see Kristen was served by Westmoreland County and initiate the call to Westmoreland and ask for the information they have," Utz said.

Additional Information:

Implementation status

Status of southwestern Pennsylvania counties' implementation of statewide child welfare network:

• Allegheny, Westmoreland, Washington and Beaver counties -- operational

• Indiana County -- expect to be operational by July 1, 2012

• Armstrong and Fayette counties -- expect to be operational by July 1, 2013

Source: Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare

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