Arizona officials revealed this week that part of the design of its recently built case management system led to documents missing from thousands of child welfare cases. The state child welfare agency now plans to review those cases and have asked dependency court judges to halt any trials or severance proceedings.
“Our preliminary assessment of the situation has determined that a minimum of 3,800 juvenile dependency cases statewide may be impacted,” said a letter sent to presiding judges from Kirsten Wright, division chief counsel of the child and family division of the Arizona attorney general’s office. Wright also said the state would seek to pause any appellate cases that might have been impacted.
Two years ago, the Arizona Department of Child Safety (DCS) launched Guardian, a new case management system built to move away from an archaic system marked by poor data integrity, no mobile platform, and barriers to interfacing with other state agencies and private providers. This was done with federal support under the Comprehensive Child Welfare Information System, or CCWIS, which offered states money to help pay for upgrading to systems that were more modular and capable of supporting information sharing and collaboration.
Most states built out their first management systems in the 1990s, and did not think big about the use of them.
“Many states did the minimalist build to satisfy (federal data collection) requirements,” Tom Morton, former director of the Clark County, Nevada, child welfare system, told Youth Services Insider back in 2017. “As a result, most were not really information management systems designed to support the complete range of agency management needs, but rather a means to automate and support federal reporting.”
Arizona was one of the first states to start building a new system with the federal money, bringing in Public Consulting Group to help design it. Guardian was built out by Microsoft as a cloud-based system and launched in February of 2021.
The problem discovered by DCS doesn’t appear so much to be a design flaw as it is a miscommunication of procedure. The system was built so that when the many service providers and social workers upload documents pertinent to a child welfare case, there was a layer of human review. Someone had to manually approve the decision to accept and include the record in the case record.
DCS has discovered that in a yet-unknown number of cases, this review process was not completed, leaving thousands of documents invisible to the courts. The governor’s office told local television affiliate ABC15 that the system has been changed to permit direct uploads of files without the review and approval process.
DCS Director David Lujan told ABC15 that he does not think any of the missing documents would have changed a decision to remove children into foster care, or terminate a parent’s rights, but that a review of the documents will decide that. He also told the Arizona Capitol Times that IBM has already been working with the department to make other fixes and improvements to Guardian.
Among the most fraught cases under review: 139 closed cases where the outcome was adoption, and 515 that resulted in guardianships. A total of 2,214 documents that went unapproved were associated with those cases.
But even if no case outcome is changed by the review of the unapproved documents, it might still entail hundreds of parents being notified of discrepancies in the trial that severed a legal connection to their children, or adoptive parents and guardians wondering if a seemingly permanent parenting relationship has been thrown into limbo.
Beyond the state borders, many states have moved slowly or not at all toward building a CCWIS to replace the old systems. One expert who has closely followed progress on implementation showed Youth Services Insider a tracker indicating that about 20 states are either still developing or have not even hired someone to build new case management.
Among the states that have completed their CCWIS builds, Youth Services Insider would not be shocked if a lot of chief information officers at human services agencies are now being asked to make sure similar barriers to full case records don’t exist in their state.