Social workers disabled by ’90s nursing software that the state hasn’t replaced

Social workers and foster parents often receive incomplete and inaccurate information about foster children in their care.

THE TEXAS TRIBUNE – Texas has poured more than $100 million into the state’s aging nursing care software known as IMPACT. This one application from the 1990s helps caseworkers keep track of where abused and neglected children are being housed, as well as what health care and schooling they received.

But despite complaints from weary caseworkers at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services who use the antiquated system on a daily basis, and from lawmakers hearing about the system’s shortcomings every legislative session, and even a reprimand from a federal judge, there’s no plan to fix it to be replaced in the foreseeable future.

At a House Committee hearing last month, the state representative said. Gene Wu, D-Houston, urged the DFPS officer to modernize IMPACT: “I’ve seen buildings erected in less time. … Can we throw money at this problem? Can we speed this up?”

But Stephanie Muth, the new DFPS commissioner, who is well acquainted with IMPACT’s track record, said a full system replacement is not in the near future.

“Before we say we need to replace more technology or discard IMPACT and start something new, it’s very important that you have your business processes in place,” Muth said, tempering the Houston representative’s urgency and expectations for an overhaul. “It wouldn’t be a process that would take a biennium or two and you would have to plan for that. So I still think we’re talking across the street.”

“Disorganization, duplication and inconsistency”

IMPACTshort for Information Management Protecting Adults and Children in Texas, was created based on 1993 federal regulations. It was developed before the first iPhone hit store shelves to track and manage services for foster children.

Over the next 30 years, web browsers were introduced and phased out. Apple has released more than 30 iterations of the iPhone. Meanwhile, the state child welfare system runs on the same technology system.

Today, DFPS clerks track down documents that are missing from the system as part of their day-to-day work. Caregivers also often receive inaccurate or incomplete information about foster children they have agreed to take.

The outdated software has been censured by a federal judge in an ongoing case over the DFPS’s care for foster children. US District Judge Janis Jack in Corpus Christi has for years criticized the “disorganization, duplication and inconsistency” in the case files of Texas foster children. In their original decision, Jack attempted to order an overhaul of IMPACT, but that mandate was struck down by the US 5th Circuit Court of Circuits.

“Inherent issues with DFPS’ legacy IMPACT system further impede caseworkers’ ability to review important electronic case record information,” said Jack, first transferred between workers in 2015.”

IMPACT’s limited functionality means caseworkers cannot upload or store documents such as birth certificates, school records and medical evaluations, the type of information needed to assess a child’s educational and health needs. With software this old, government officials must be tied to a laptop or tablet to update a child’s data as IMPACT is not compatible with cell phones.

“In the 1990s there was hardly any internet. People weren’t doing their work on laptops,” said Hope Osborn, policy and advocacy manager at data-driven think tank Texas 2036. “Now that we’re in this digital age, most people’s entire work revolves around their phones and computers . When you have a system that makes it difficult for them to use these things, you have a certain tension.”

External parties, including inpatient treatment centers and other facilities that house children, do not have access to IMPACT. As a result, caregivers received incorrect or incomplete information about foster children in their care. This complicates the implementation of community-based care, in which part of the child protection service tasks are outsourced to local third parties.

Christie Carrington worked as a government clerk for 13 years before retiring last April. Since school records cannot be uploaded, she visited a school’s registry office to obtain information about a child’s schooling. And because inpatient treatment centers don’t have access to the system, she also regularly filled out lengthy forms before a child entered the facility. After 13 years, she said all typing had become part of the job.

The same clerks accessing IMPACT cannot view real-time updates, according to a 2014 Assessment of IMPACT. For foster children who go through multiple internships or work with multiple clerks, IMPACT can make the transition difficult.

“Current IT tools and resources take up significant time away from children and families. Employees spend a lot of time doing administrative work to load information into systems, often in a laborious way,” the report said.

Plaster on an aging system

Texas 2036 and the Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services January estimated that a new child welfare information system would initially cost Texas about $80 million. But there are some funding sources available.

As an incentive, attorneys in the federal case against DFPS have offered to give the attorney fees they won to the state to fund a new technology system.

Eight years ago, the federal government also began encouraging states to modernize their care record systems by offering to reimburse up to 50% of a state’s costs if new programs incorporate a more mobile-friendly design with real-time updates.

Despite this, Texas remains one of four holdout states, along with Alaska, Massachusetts, and Nebraska, that have declared no intention to adhere to user-friendly federal standards. Most states have agreed, but are still in the process of overhauling their own systems.

When the federal standards came out in 2015, DFPS declined because the rules were too restrictive, an agency spokesman said. The Federal Health Office has now relaxed the regulations linked to reimbursement.

“Now we are speaking to other states about their experiences and assessing our own needs before deciding next steps,” said Patrick Crimmins, spokesman for the DFPS.

Michael Corrigan is part of a vendor team offering a program, VitalChild, that would meet these new federal standards. He said states may be reluctant to adapt their systems to new guidelines because of competing priorities within the child protection agency.

According to Corrigan, the change in leadership can also contribute to delays in prioritizing a large project like replacing an IT system. In recent months, DFPS has weathered a number of leadership changeincluding the commissioner who will take over the leadership position in January.

“Every day is chaos. When do you find the time?” Corrigan said. “Change is difficult. You need to have the money to start and the time to figure out which (solution) would fit.”

Over the past decade, the state has spent $101 million in general revenues on upgrading, as well as other costs, to maintain and update the system, according to state data obtained by Texas 2036.

The state will spend millions more to optimize IMPACT. DFPS requested more than $68 million in the 2024-25 budget for “Strengthening Information Technology and Data Resources,” which includes IMPACT. IMPACT alone is expected to cost approximately $3 million over this budget cycle to maintain.

Osborn, with Texas 2036, said sticking with IMPACT wastes state money when system change is imminent.

“Some effort is in place, but you can only put so many patches on a system that it can’t fulfill the basic functionality of what you want,” Osborn said.

Disclosure: Apple and Texas 2036 are financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization funded in part by donations from members, foundations, and corporate sponsors. Financial backers play no part in the Tribune’s journalism. find a complete one list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

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