Multi-million-dollar Michigan computer system continues to fail abused, neglected kids

By: - March 19, 2019 4:32 pm

The $231 million computer system used to track Michigan’s child abuse and neglect cases is so ineffective that it should be scrapped just five years after its 2014 launch, according to an independent assessment released last week by Michigan’s Eastern District Court.

DHHS image

That assessment, conducted by former federal Department of Health and Human Services analyst Kurt Heisler, found that the system suffers from “an unmanageable backlog” that “negatively affect[s] outcomes for children and families.”

Flaws inherent to the computer system, known as MiSACWIS (Michigan Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System), were responsible for 40 percent of that backlog as of November 2018. Heisler claims that this could directly lead to negative outcomes, such as missed subsidy payments and the loss of medical care for the more than 10,000 children currently under state supervision.

The report claimed that issues with MiSACWIS are “making it even more difficult to track and assess the status and needs of Michigan’s foster children.”

Speaking after a Detroit Chamber of Commerce event on Thursday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer described an “incredibly frustrating” state of affairs, citing the unwelcome “carry over from the last administration [of Gov. Rick Snyder].”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaking at the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, March 14, 2019 | Ken Coleman

“We are going to fix it,” Whitmer said. “I am confident [new Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director] Robert Gordon is the man to do it. It’s incredibly frustrating for taxpayers, for me. But most importantly, very worrisome for kids who need protection the most.”

The Associated Press noted that roughly 10 percent of those children “experienced repeated incidents of abuse or neglect” in 2017, according to experts who reported this month to Eastern District Judge Nancy Edmunds as part of an ongoing, decade-plus oversight program that has cost the state $27 million.

The DHHS, which oversees child welfare issues among its other duties, will decide on the program’s fate by June 27, and is still using the system as usual in the meantime.

MiSACWIS was intended to streamline an overburdened child welfare system by sharing data in real time between government agencies, private partners, and Michigan’s courts, but has instead contributed to what Edmunds described as a “pretty depressing” state of affairs.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and DHHS Director Robert Gordon at the Fiscal Year 2020 budget presentation | Casey Hull

“We know MiSACWIS has major problems, as the court reported and the hearing highlighted,” said DHHS spokesperson Bob Wheaton. “The court has given us until June 27 to determine the appropriate next steps. We will take that time to do so.”

The report follows an official audit in September 2018 that was scathing in its characterization of the state’s child welfare, including MiSACWIS’ shortcomings. It found that the system incorrectly populated response fields related to risk assessment, in some cases leading to “the potential for negative implications on child safety.”

Snyder, whose Department of Technology, Management and Budget entered into a contract with Unisys for the system’s development at a total estimated cost of $72.5 million, described the audit’s findings at the time as “unacceptable.” He said that the state “must do more to accelerate the corrective actions.”

Planning for the new system began before Snyder took office in 2009, with Michigan’s Eastern District Court ordering that the system be implemented by October 2013. The court would later extend that deadline to April 2014, leading to a six-to-12-month gap for some users between their training and its implementation.

Rick Snyder and Brian Calley at their year-end press conference, Dec. 11, 2018 | Ken Coleman

Heisler describes the DHHS as taking an ambitious “Big Bang” approach to the system’s rollout despite those delays, but its implementation was stymied by both flaws in the system itself and confusion among its userbase.

That confusion, along with the system’s built-in flaws, led to a backlog of requested data fixes that snowballed each year, from 895 in 2015 to 3,670 in 2017.

Echoing the findings of the state audit, more than half of respondents to an DHHS-sponsored survey said that they were unable to correct information that was entered into the system incorrectly. And almost two-thirds reported that information entered into the system was not saved at all.

Michigan’s agencies have been no stranger to information technology dysfunction over the last decade, with high-profile lawsuits filed over systems issues at both the Department of State and the Unemployment Insurance Agency.

The state settled out of court with Hewlett-Packard in the former case for $13 million, accusing the company of failing to deliver on their promised modernization of the department’s computer systems. That effort was then handed over to Colorado-based FAST Enterprises, the same company that developed the faulty software which led to a class-action lawsuit on the behalf of unemployment recipients falsely accused of fraud.

DHHS’ Wheaton did not rule out a similar lawsuit, but told the Advance it would be “premature” to discuss the topic before the court’s June 27 deadline.

Federal scrutiny of the state’s child welfare system dates back to 2006, when the nonprofit group Children’s Rights sued the state of Michigan over its deficiencies in Dwayne B. v Granholm, during the former Gov. Jennifer Granholm administration. The state settled with Children’s Rights in 2008, leading to the current federal monitoring system, later revised in Dwayne B. v Snyder.

Samantha Bartosz

“We are exceedingly disappointed that after more than ten years, Michigan still finds itself failing the state’s most vulnerable children,” said Samantha Bartosz of Children’s Rights in a press release last week following the latest report. “This long into reform, such grave safety concerns for children clearly suggest a lack of management focus.”

Heisler’s report recommends a new system “that does not rely, in any significant way, on the infrastructure, design, and data model of the current MiSACWIS.”

Barring that, the report allows as “the second-best solution” a redesign or adaptation of the existing system — one which, despite the investment of five-plus years and hundreds of millions of dollars, according to an anonymous individual cited in the report “is still very much a system in development.”

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Derek Robertson
Derek Robertson

Derek Robertson is a former reporter for the Advance. Previously, he wrote for Politico Magazine in Washington. He is a Genesee County native and graduate of both Wayne State University, where he studied history, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.