Florida revamps IT operations to save children

PALM DESERT, CALIFORNIA (03/10/2004) - Not so long ago, children supposedly under the protection of the Florida Department of Children and Families were being abandoned, abused and murdered.

"We were a broken agency," said Ben Harris, deputy secretary for operations and technology, who arrived at the scandal-plagued DCF last year after it became the center of a media firestorm about its inability to keep the state's underprivileged children safe.

Harris, speaking this week at Computerworld's Premier 100 IT Leaders Conference in Palm Desert, California, told attendees that "technology had to be the driving force" in fixing the US$3.8 billion agency.

That's because technology was part of the problem. The DCF, which has a $250 million annual IT budget, was organized in part around a central information operation with 59 applications used to track families and children, the DCF's clients and the services they needed. But the department also had 15 semiautonomous districts with their own IT functions and managers, which soaked up about half the agency's IT budget and created an additional 243 often overlapping and inadequate applications.

"It was a mess," Harris said.

But by the end of this year, the DCF will have consolidated those 15 districts' IT operations under central control and eliminated all but 30 of the 243 district-specific applications. And DCF workers will get a single view to all 92 remaining applications that they have rights to access through a new portal called OneFamily.

Through OneFamily, users will get a unified view of each client, something once impossible because the information was scattered across various applications, meaning workers didn't always know which services a client was getting or needed, said Glenn Palmiere, DCF's IT director. The DCF will also get access to information from other state agencies, which should eliminate incidents such as the one last year when a Jacksonville mother left her 2-year-old child alone for 19 days while she was in jail.

Palmiere noted that OneFamily is fully compliant with the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act regarding client privacy in areas such as mental health, drug rehabilitation and other medical-related data.

As part of a major revamping of the DCF, Gov. Jeb Bush has pushed the department to privatize its services. As such, the DCF will be working with approved and monitored nonprofit community agencies, which will also have access to OneFamily, Harris said.

According to Palmiere, the DCF was able to consolidate its application portfolio by using integration technology called Ensemble from InterSystems Corp. in Cambridge, Mass. By using a handful of the 220 database and application adapters in Ensemble, the DCF has been able to begin eliminating programs and consolidating access to its remaining applications through the portal.

In addition, the DCF next month will pilot kiosk technology allowing clients to complete applications for services or change an address without having to wait in line to meet with a DCF worker, who would normally fill out the forms, Palmiere said. Data will immediately be accessible to agency case workers through the portal, and Palmiere said he expects the kiosks to be rolled out throughout Florida in July.

Among those in the audience was Gerry Dane, associate vice president for information systems at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. She said the DCF's inability to keep tabs on kids in its system "has been a major problem in the state."

"Now it looks like they will be able to track children better because they will be able to see the information better. They now have real tools to work with," she said. "That will save our children."

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