FILE - Old computers

Computers from 1998 are pretty rare nowadays in private homes and the business sector, but Maine is relying on a system of that vintage to track and monitor children in its care.

That outdated system, plus a 2018 study that had half of the state’s caseworkers reported being overwhelmed and unable to properly supervise families, have contributed to a decision to upgrade the Department of Health and Human’s Services’s computer system.

The department recently awarded a $36 million contract to Deloitte Consulting to pursue the upgrade. The New York City firm has a track record of working on 22 such systems since 1993.

The contract is funded in part by a $21.2 million package passed in the fall of 2018 to implement improvements in child welfare, and $8 million of federal funds will be used toward the computer system. The contract must be approved by the federal government before it can be awarded.

Child advocates and caseworkers within the system have been clamoring for change for years, and the department was open about the need for a computer upgrade. The critical nature of the situation was brought home in a severe way with the deaths of two children in state custody in recent years: a 4-year-old in 2017 and a 10-year-old in 2018 who were both determined to be the victims of lethal child abuse.

In March, the department posted on its website an explanation for the need for a new system as well as other efforts to improve supervision of children, both those in its system and those who have come to its attention who need to be monitored while in the care of their families, stating:

“The total number of licensed foster homes in Maine has decreased over the past 4-5 years. Meanwhile, we have seen a 27 [percent] increase in reports to the Child Protective Intake Hotline over the past year, resulting in a 25 [percent] increase in the number of families assigned for assessment and an increase in the number of children entering care. … The current system, Maine Automated Child Welfare Information System (MACWIS) is nearly 20 years old, and will be replaced with a new system to help ensure that children do not languish in our system.”

Recent changes in protocols also include children taken from parents but placed with relatives now being considered in the care of the state, thus increasing the need for a modern, efficient way for caseworkers to keep track of an increasing number of children.

“These initiatives are among many that the Department is pursuing to better support Maine's children and families,” it noted.