ARTICLE DATE: 02.28.11
By Erik Rhey
For most of us, the term "red tape" signifies minor inconveniences or annoyances when, for example, we're renewing a driver's license, getting a passport, or waiting for a tax refund check. But to children in the child welfare system of South Florida, red tape once had disastrous effects. In the 1990s, kids were left to languish in shelters (instead of being placed in foster care or reunited with parents), and in some cases, abandoned in abusive households.
In fact, a May 1998 article in Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel newspaper detailed horrific injuries, deaths, and sexual assaults to South Florida children in the foster care system. In 1999, the Florida legislature declared the state's child welfare system officially broken and passed a law mandating sweeping reforms. Broward County appointed a committee to search for the answer to a damaged Department of Children & Families.
The result was ChildNet, a "lead agency" that, according to its Web site, "manages the local system of services and supports for Broward's abused, abandoned, and neglected children and their caregivers."
Drowning in a Sea of Paper
According to ChildNet CEO, Emilio Benitez, one big reason Broward County's child welfare system was failing its kids was because case workers were literally getting buried in paperwork, which begins the moment a child enters the system. Within 24 hours of a child arriving at ChildNet's assessment center, a case worker is assigned and a case is opened. While trying to find placement, the child undergoes a mentalhealth assessment, family assessment, and so on. All of this generates "a voluminous number of documents," Benitez says, taking case workers, psychiatrists, and others to manage it all using a binder system.
"We used binders that are 5 to 6 inches thick and can contain 500 pages of records—and that's just one file," Benitez says. "Some cases require 2 or 3 binders. One child even had 72 volumes in his file!" Aside from the time spent compiling and retrieving these forms, there's also the issue of where to store it all. Benitez says that ChildNet had to utilize costly off-site storage, particularly because of state requirements that the agency keep case files until a child's 30th birthday.
The second and more serious problem with all this paper is making it available to case workers outside the office. A day in the life of a child welfare worker often involves going to court hearings and performing home visitations. Benitez says case workers would lug multiple binders to court, trying to anticipate which forms a judge will request to review. And if that judge requested a document not on hand, it would delay court proceeding by hours and sometimes days. All this meant that kids often waited in limbo while the wheels of the system turned agonizingly slow.
For Benitez and his CFO, Dipak Parekh, the answer was immediately apparent: ChildNet needed to institute a document management system to digitize, organize, and make readily available its mountain of forms. A former federal court attorney, Benitez had already seen a transition to electronic documents there and ChildNet wanted to emulate that in the child welfare system. But with literally millions of case files, this was no meager task. So ChildNet put out a request for proposal—and Ricoh came to the rescue.
According to Murat Kilci, senior solutions consultant for Ricoh, the company created a customized system for ChildNet based on some core applications and equipment. First, he realized that ChildNet needed the muscle of enterprise-level hardware and software to tackle that kind of volume. So Ricoh started with
creating a basic repository using Westbrook's Fortis software to capture, organize, and store documents.
"Once a document is scanned," Kilci says, "VRS looks at the scanned image and can enhance it without user intervention. It can create a better-looking document than the original." The documents are all saved as 300-dpi TIFF image files that are read-only. Workers can add sticky notes onto the docs, but the original integrity is maintained, satisfying both HIPAA and court requirements.
Another key capability is character recognition. The scanners run OCR (optical character recognition)
To make forms available to case workers outside the office, ChildNet outfitted them with Windows Mobile–based devices. Now if a worker needs a file in court, he or she can pull it up and print it right there in the courtroom. Also, workers can use their handhelds to take photos at visitations and collect signatures.
Yes, ChildNet and Ricoh have accomplished the Herculean task of digitizing their backlog of files, but they're not stopping there. Parekh says he wants to migrate the Web interface of the ChildNet database to Android devices to give workers more flexibility and device options. Also, Kilci at Ricoh is working on a streamlined electronic ticketing system that uses bar codes to further automate the digitization of documents. Case workers already have an internal "dashboard" to help them manage their workload, but Benitez says
ChildNet is working on a Web dashboard that outside users can take advantage of to retrieve basic information on cases. And though the team at Ricoh all agrees this project has been rewarding, there is one employee who understands this best. Eric Palmieri, Ricoh's customer relationship manager, and his wife are foster parents in Broward County. He says they have experienced first-hand "the stress and pain when one of the documents that we may have signed was misplaced or even lost." Thankfully, that has changed."I know that what we are doing at ChildNet will make the process of reviewing and signing documents, when a case worker comes to my house, a much easier and pleasant process."
Copyright (c) 2011 Ziff Davis Inc.