Minnesota’s ‘archaic’ technology wastes critical caseworker time, counties say

County staff and lawmakers have a few choice words to describe the 25-year-old state information system used to manage child protection cases and social service programs: Slow. archaic. A nightmare.

“It’s the most vulnerable people we have in the state of Minnesota that are in this system,” said Pine County Commissioner Terry Lovgren. “They need the most care, they need the most help, and we can’t give it to them because we’re working in a broken system.”

Governor Tim Walz recently proposed spending $15 million to update the Social Services Information System (SSIS). It was one of the biggest items in his supplementary budget plan.

County officials say the more efficient technology could save child protection workers — who are in high demand and short supply — hours each week, allowing them to spend more time with children and families. And lawmakers and advocates pointed out that without a technology update, some other efforts in the Capitol to improve children’s well-being must remain on hold.

But the money Walz proposed is only a fraction of the estimated $80 million to $100 million needed for a full SSIS replacement.

Half of that money could come from a federal match, said Tikki Brown, assistant commissioner for children and family services at the Department of Human Services. Last year, lawmakers set aside $2 million to analyze SSIS issues and see what the new system would require, she said, and they will have a report in the fall.

If lawmakers approve the $15 million, Brown said it would allow the state to begin building a framework for a replacement system and help “stabilize” the existing system to prevent crashes that have become more frequent in recent years.

The system will shut down for hours, or even crash for a full day. County and tribal government employees will lose what they wrote because technology often doesn’t save it automatically.

Nothing can be copied and pasted, so staff must laboriously enter the same information over and over again. The “spinning wheel of death” is a familiar sight as the screens slowly load.

Modernizing SSIS is complex, DHS officials said, because agencies use it to manage many types of services.

It is primarily used for child welfare information, such as abuse reports, out-of-home placement plans, and adoption information. However, local agencies also rely on it to administer a host of other programs, including mental health services for adults and children and waiver programs for seniors and people with disabilities.

A ‘first step’ for child welfare changes

The $15 million for SSIS is the only child protection-related item in Walz’s spending plan. The governor said he would propose funding to recruit and retain more caseworkers after a Star Tribune series last year examined failures of the child protection system that led to repeated abuse and deaths.

DHS worked with the counties to revise Walz’s original proposal and fund the most pressing needs, Walz spokeswoman Claire Lancaster said. The governor’s supplemental funding plan this year is a limited overhaul of the two-year budget state leaders passed last spring.

“This funding is a first step that will help address immediate needs within the child welfare system — allowing workers to spend less time on IT and more time with children and families,” Lancaster said. “We plan to revisit this issue in a budget year.”

The cumbersome system forces child protection workers to spend about 45 minutes longer than necessary entering data on a child, estimated Lovgren, of Pine County. Among the time-consuming problems: workers must repeatedly enter the same parent’s information for every child in a family.

“That’s 45 to 50 minutes that they can spend with that family and make sure the kids are safe and they’re in a good place and the family is OK,” she said.

A more efficient information system could change the number of county child protection workers, said Sen. Nicole Mitchell, DFL-Woodbury. With limited state dollars available this year, she said spending money on SSIS upgrades makes more sense since it seems to affect everything else.

Mitchell co-chairs a Legislative Task Force on Child Protection and said technology issues have come up repeatedly whenever lawmakers ask why something can’t be done.

Some bills in the Capitol this session have been deemed “impossible to implement” because of system constraints, said Joanna Woolman, with the Institute for Transforming Child Protection at Mitchell Hamline Law School. She said the system is blocking legislation that would ensure children in foster care are notified of federal benefits when their parents die and is preventing ombudsman offices from getting data they need to investigate cases.

Technology also prevents the state from understanding what’s working or not in the child protection system, Woolman said, because they can’t easily pull trend data on adoptions, racial demographics or the speed of litigation.

“Child advocacy is really sensitive, important and highly emotional work,” said Laura Bartsch, a Dakota County child and family intake supervisor. “If we don’t have the best, most accurate information systems or equipment to work with, I think that’s a liability to how we’re serving families.”

District officials said they hope the improvements to SSIS will help them retain staff. They noted that young employees, who have recently graduated from college and are passionate about working with children and families, end up especially confused by outdated technology.

Across Minnesota, child protection workers are facing higher-than-recommended caseloads, and thousands of social work jobs remain unfilled.

Scott County’s child protection division had a 40-50% employee turnover rate in recent years, said Deputy Health and Human Services Director Suzanne Arntson, who conducts exit interviews with departing employees.

“Every one of my staff that has left either attributes SSIS as the primary or secondary driver [reason],” she said.

One morning last year, DHS staff visited Scott County. They planned to sit down with county workers and see what it’s like to work with the technology, Arntson said.

Instead, the system was up and running the entire time they were there.

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