March 26, 2011

Social Services failed to follow up on abuse and neglect, audit says; children placed with abusers

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By Megan Poinski
Megan@MarylandReporter.com

Severe problems with recordkeeping and computer systems kept the state’s Social Services Administration from following up on cases of abuse and neglect and led it to place children with caregivers who had histories of abuse and neglect.

The failed systems also caused it to fall far behind in several federal benchmarks.

Many of the problems found in the report released Friday by the Office of Legislative Audits were pointed out to the department in a 2008 audit.

Chief Legislative Auditor Bruce Myers said some of the issues with the division’s computer system have been causing problems for years.

“I can’t say I’m surprised because I know their history,” Myers said. “I am disappointed that they can’t get this up and running and effective.”

The Social Services Administration oversees several of the Department of Human Resources’ functions with families and children, including placement at group or foster homes for children.

The administration keeps its records in a computer system called the Children’s Electronic Social Services Information Exchange, CHESSIE for short. This network is supposed to keep local social services departments updated with information and to help them monitor out-of-home placements.

Faulty and incomplete data

However, the data in the Maryland system is faulty and incomplete. The division also does “hand counts” – where information is manually tallied – of important statistics, like how many cases of abuse and neglect the department determined. The audit found wide differences between the hand count and the statistics in the computer.

According to the manual count, there were 3,166 findings of abuse and neglect. The computer system only listed 1,896.

The incorrect information was sent to the federal government, where it failed to meet standards. Additionally, because there is so much information missing, it is nearly impossible for the administration to follow up on all instances of abuse or neglect that are reported within 24 hours, as is required by law.

Auditors also found that no information – either the hand counts or computer system – were double-checked to make sure that children were not placed with people who were found to be abusive or neglectful.

Myers said this had never been looked at in previous audits, and he found it sad that the existing information was not put to good use. Using computer data, auditors found that there were six people between April 2008 and June 2010 that had credible evidence of abuse or neglect, yet they had been given the care of 32 children.

Failing federal standards

The administration also had problems meeting several state federal standards. Poor record-keeping kept them from proving that nine out of 17 foster care children in a sample had received the state-required medical examinations within the previous year.

Additionally, measures of outcomes reported to the federal government plummeted. The federal government sets a standard that state agencies should meet a 90% success rate for seven standards dealing with children’s living conditions and needs. Not only does Maryland fail to meet that goal in any of the standards, but the success rate has fallen in each category by 10% or more since the last audit. The worst drop was whether children were maintained safely at home whenever possible, which went from 92% of the time in 2007 to 40% of the time in 2010.

The audit also found:

• Providers were overpaid $5.8 million in fiscal year 2008.

• Local agencies were not notified when children were born to people whose parental rights had previously been terminated because of abuse or neglect. The problem came from different interpretations of a 2009 law.

• There were no supporting documents for invoices for $3.4 million worth of contractual services provided by a state university from 2008 through 2010.

Interim Human Services Secretary Ted Dallas agreed with many of the recommendations. In a letter, he told Myers, “I assure you that the department take’s auditor finding seriously and implementation of corrective action is being given prompt attention.

Social Services Administration Executive Director Carnitra White said that many of the deficiencies with the computer system have been fixed. Some of the paperwork was not finished, and the people with histories of abuse and neglect had been administratively cleared to house children, she said.

As for the federal standards not being met, she said that was the result of an inaccurate sample studied and does not necessarily show things getting worse.

Myers said that the audit may be heard by the General Assembly’s Joint Audit Committee later this year.

Here is the Baltimore Sun’s story on the audit by Meredith Cohn.