Dragon Info

Child Welfare Articles

Social Worker Awareness Campaign

Overview: Providing Services on the Run

Children's Services Committee Plans Social Worker Awareness Campaign

Social Workers, Foster Kids and Community Suggest Issues

SB 2030 Findings

Special Reports

Dependency Court Overwhelmed

Social Worker Meltdown Series

Protecting Children, Restoring Families, It takes Time


July 2001
Crisis in Transitional Services for Foster Youth -- Independent Living Programs Make a Difference

Housing Is A Major Problem

Leonard Moncure and Jennifer

From Homeless to College Graduate

The social worker may be the only one you can trust

Kathy Garcia: I try to be that one adult a child can feel safe talking to.

February 2001
Assemblywoman Dion Aroner "The union needs to take leadership in providing best practices for taking care of kids and families"

Making a Difference, Jacob Ocampo takes social work to the community

September 2000
Social Worker Awareness Campaign

Riding Along with Bilingual Worker Frederick Machado

Social Worker Heartbeat

February 2000
Are Social Workers Entitled to a Life?
Just Say No to Excessive Overtime


October 1997
Caseload State of Emergency

CWS/CMS Computer Crashes Child Welfare System

Seeing Through The CWS/CMS Mess

February 1997
Adoptions:Parent v. Child

Los Angeles County:Working in the Adoption Factory

Creating New Families

June 1996
Kathleen Schormann and the Unquiet Death of Lance Helms

Family Reunification Workers Speak Out


SEIU Local 535 Dragon--Voice of  the Union-- American Federation of Nurses & Social Services Unioin

CWS/CMS Crashes Child Welfare System

social worker Sharon Levitt staring at the computer in frustration
Alameda County dependency investigator Sharon Levitt attempting to print out a notice of hearing using the CWS/CMS computer system. After struggling for an hour and a half she finally gave up, took out a bottle of white out, and manually corrected what the computer printed out.

October 1997

Over protests and warnings from workers and the union (see the July issue of the Dragon), the state is pressuring counties to fully implement the Child Welfare Services/Case Management System.

The Dragon spoke with workers from all over the state. Even small counties that had manageable caseloads have been thrown into crisis with the introduction of the system. At best, the few workers with good typing and computer skills, who feel they have mastered the system, report a 30% drop in productivity. The majority have found the system completely unmanageable.

“It’s a lot of point and click, point and click, point and click,” commented Alameda County dependency investigator Paula Glodowski, as she demonstrated one of the major complaints: how entering a simple case notation can take a dozen mouse clicks, and a lot of time tapping the desk, while the computer accesses files and opens and closes screens. She sees the system as one more thing preventing her from working with her clients. “I like to surf the net on my computer at home, but that’s not what I got my degree for. My job is to work with kids, not be a computer programmer.”

“We can no longer do social work. All I do is put out fires,” stated Tulare County child welfare worker Arlene Nanez. According to Nanez, CWS/CMS has caused a back-up of over 600 referrals in Tulare County since June. Foster care is six weeks behind. “Normally, we’re up to date. Last year I only had four cases I was unable to close on time. That was for the entire year. Since we introduced CWS/CMS in June, I have been late on 16 cases. People are going out on stress leave left and right. Out of 18 social workers, four are out on stress leave, and normally no one is ever out on stress in Tulare. People are walking around the office with headaches and upset stomachs. They can’t eat. They get so stressed out they lay down on the floor. People are working overtime and not putting it on their time cards just to try and stay current.”

Alameda County Dependency Investigator Paula Glodowski staring at a computer
Alameda County Dependency Investigator Paula Glodowski

She echoes the litany of complaints that workers from all over the state have cited: “The computer goes down nearly every day and you lose hours of work. You get error messages and the manual doesn’t explain them. You call the IBM help desk in Boulder and either people aren’t there or they don’t understand what you are talking about. I called and said that I was trying to move a child from an ER [emergency response] case to a continuing case, and they didn’t understand what that meant.”

Alameda County dependency investigator Michelle Love was more optimistic. She has seen the system improve. She reported that crashes and losing work aren’t as common as when the county first went online. “It’s just part of the job. I can see how it will help. It has already helped me do reports.”

Social worker Randy Morris working at computer looking tense.
Alameda County emergency response worker Randy Morris

Alameda County emergency response worker Randy Morris also believes that the system is getting better and is willing to suspend judgment on the outcome, hoping that the major problems can be worked out. But one of his concerns is that he is routinely forced to enter incorrect data to make the system work. “I’ve learned that to move around the system you have to manipulate and lie to it. For example, I may be investigating a family with a number of children, and several may be living in another state. When they pop up on the screen, I can’t close the screen until I enter the date I interviewed each child. So I have to make up a date and say I saw the child, and then enter in narrative that the child lives out of state and I didn’t see him.” Morris also finds it difficult to fix key stroke errors. For these reasons, Morris questions the validity of the system’s data for the last six months.

Alameda County has adopted a cautious attitude toward CWS/CMS, allowing workers to ease into the system. The county has lowered caseloads, attempting to make the transition more manageable.

Alameda and Contra Costa counties are also using clerks to enter a lot of the data. However, this approach has produced less than favorable results. According to Morris, no one was prepared for how slowly the system would work.
Originally, emergency response hotline screeners were to enter information into the computer while taking information from the caller over the phone, and then shoot it over to a supervisor’s computer. The supervisor would then assign the case to an emergency response investigator and send the case to the investigator’s computer. But the system is too slow for the screeners to enter information in real time. So a screener takes the information down on paper and gives it to a supervisor, who then gives a copy to the assigned worker and a copy to a clerk. The clerk then enters the information into the computer. This has caused a logistical nightmare; in Alameda, clerks are still inputting cases from July. Cases appear on the emergency response investigator’s computer long after the investigation is finished. The investigator must then recall the case from memory and notes to enter it in the computer. Meanwhile, investigators are unable to get information on the status of cases they are working on, which is especially problematic if more than one worker is involved.
“We’re all holding our breath for the one case where something gets lost in the paperwork shuffle. Fortunately nothing has happened yet, but I get a couple of cases a month after the date we were supposed to have responded,” Morris reported.

Morris isn’t the only one holding his breath. Deborah Ramirez is a supervisor at the Lakewood emergency response command post in Los Angeles County. Her office was one of the first to go online. Hotline workers at her office enter the information from the telephone into the computer, but what used to take 30 or 40 minutes under the old AB60 system now takes an hour or more, even for proficient workers. Before CWS/CMS, keeping a caller on hold for more than 30 minutes was considered unacceptable. Now callers routinely wait an hour or two before a screener can answer. “What if someone sees a kid being hit, and calls us instead of the police, and gets put on hold for an hour. The child could be killed in that time,” Ramirez exclaimed. And entry of the information in the computer is just the beginning. When Ramirez arrives at work at 5 p.m. she finds referrals processed at 2 p.m. that still haven’t been assigned to a worker.

The overall sentiment expressed by workers we spoke with was: “If something is not done soon, a child is going to die, and they are going to pin the blame on a worker.”

Los Angeles County has already experienced two near tragedies because of the system. In one case, emergency response worker Joel Geffen received a referral from a nurse reporting that a medically fragile child was at high risk and needed a worker to go out immediately to evaluate whether the parents, both minors, could care for the child. Geffen took the call and entered it into the CWS/CMS computer. “I was really concerned that the child might die of respiratory failure—so I saved the write-up and called in the next day to check.” The printer had jammed and the report never printed out, so one of the workers re-entered the report on the old system, the AB60—the same system the county wants the workers to stop using.

Dependency investigator, Pamela Winthers staring at a computer screen
Dependency investigator, Pamela Winthers, Alameda County: "We can't give the type of services that are mandated and fulfill the court's expectations. Between the paper work and the computer work there is no time left to do social work with the kids."

In another case, the police took the parents of a child into custody, left the child with a neighbor, and referred the case to emergency response. The case didn’t come out of the printer until several days later. When the worker finally got the case , it turned out the neighbor had a history of child abuse. (Fortunately, the child was okay.)

Another problem that worries workers is that not only does the system force them to enter bad information, but there is quite a bit of potential liability attached to that information. “On some screens there is a field for ‘perpetrator,’ and we can’t close the screen or save data until we enter a name, so a lot of times we’re forced to enter the mother’s name,” a worker stated. The system then automatically prints out a referral that is supposed to be sent to the police department. At present, the workers routinely throw out all these printouts, but one can only imagine the consequence if the automatic referral to police function is implemented.
Even if the problems are resolved and the system works as planned, two files will be needed for each case: a computer file, and a file folder of paper documents such as medical evaluations, faxes, and legal documents. These documents need to be cross referenced in the computer’s narrative field and then stored in another filing system. Thus, rather than eliminating paperwork, the computer system may be creating two unmanageable systems instead of just one.

Not all counties have bowed to the pressure to adopt CWS/CMS. After intense lobbying by union rep Tom Abshere and social workers chapter president John Reyes, Fresno County decided it would wait until the problems were solved before bringing CWS/CMS online.