Caseworkers hampered by ’90s-era foster care software that the state hasn’t replaced
Texas has poured more than $100 million into the state’s aging foster care software known as IMPACT. This one 1990s-era application helps caseworkers keep track of where abused and neglected children are placed, as well as what healthcare services and schooling they have received.
But despite complaints from weary Texas Department of Family and Protective Services caseworkers who use the antiquated system daily and from lawmakers who hear about the system’s shortcomings every legislative session and even a reprimand from a federal judge, there’s no plan to replace it anytime soon.
At a House committee hearing last month, state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, pressed the DFPS commissioner about modernizing IMPACT: "I've seen buildings go up in less time. … Can we throw money at this problem? Can we speed that up?"
But Stephanie Muth, the new DFPS commissioner who is well acquainted with IMPACT’s track record, said a complete system replacement is not in the near future.
"Before we say we need to replace more of the technology or throw IMPACT out and start something new, it's very important that you have your business process set," Muth said, tempering the Houston representative’s urgency and expectations for an overhaul. "It would not be a process that takes a biennium or two, and you'd have to plan for that. So I still think we're talking about down the road."
"Disorganization, duplication and inconsistency"
IMPACT, short for the Information Management Protecting Adults and Children in Texas, was created based on federal regulations from 1993. It was built before the first iPhone made it onto store shelves to track and manage services for foster care children.
In the 30 years that have followed, web browsers have been launched and then discontinued. Apple has released more than 30 iterations of the iPhone. The state’s child welfare system, meanwhile, runs on the same technology system.
Today, as part of their day-to-day work, DFPS caseworkers physically track down documents missing from the system. Caretakers are also often left with inaccurate or incomplete information about foster care children they have agreed to take on.
The outmoded software has been rebuked by a federal judge in an ongoing case over how DFPS cares for foster care children. U.S. District Judge Janis Jack in Corpus Christi has for years criticized the "disorganization, duplication, and inconsistency" in Texas foster children’s case files. In her initial ruling, Jack tried to order an overhaul of IMPACT but that mandate was struck down by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"Inherent problems with DFPS’s outdated IMPACT system further impede caseworkers’ ability to review important electronic case file information," Jack first said in 2015. "This creates opportunities for important safety-related tasks to ‘fall through the cracks,’ especially when cases are transferred between workers."
IMPACT’s limited functionality means caseworkers can’t upload or store documents like birth certificates, school records and medical evaluations, the kind of information needed to assess a child’s academic and health care needs. With a software this old, state workers must be tied to a laptop or tablet to update a child’s record because IMPACT is not compatible with mobile phones.
"In the ’90s, the internet really barely existed. People weren’t doing their jobs on laptops," said Hope Osborn, a policy and advocacy manager at the data-based think tank Texas 2036. "Now that we’re in this digital age, most people’s entire jobs revolve around their phones and computers. If you have a system that makes it more difficult for them to use those things, you’ve got some tension."
Outside parties, including residential treatment centers and other facilities housing children, do not have access to IMPACT. Caretakers, as a result, have been given incorrect or incomplete information about foster kids in their care. This complicates the implementation of community-based care, which involves outsourcing part of Child Protective Services’ duties to local third parties.
Christie Carrington worked as a state caseworker for 13 years before retiring last April. Because school records cannot be uploaded, she would visit a school’s registrar to get information about a child’s schooling. And because residential treatment centers cannot access the system, she would also regularly fill out lengthy forms before a child was placed in the facility. After 13 years, she said all that inputting became part of the job.
Those same caseworkers accessing IMPACT cannot view updates in real time, according to a 2014 assessment of IMPACT. For foster children who experience multiple placements or work with multiple case workers, IMPACT can impede the transition.
"The current IT tools and resources demand considerable time resources away from children and families. Staff spends considerable time doing administrative work to load information in the systems, often in burdensome manners," the report said.
Band-Aids on an aging system
Texas 2036 and the Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services estimated in January that a new child welfare information system would initially cost Texas about $80 million. But there are some funding sources available.
As an incentive, lawyers in the federal litigation against DFPS have offered to give up the legal fees they have won to the state to fund a new technology system.
Eight years ago, the federal government also began encouraging states to modernize their foster care data systems by offering to reimburse up to 50% of a state’s costs if new programs include a more mobile-friendly design capable of real-time updates.
Even so, Texas remains one of four holdout states that have not declared an intent to comply with user-friendly federal standards, along with Alaska, Massachusetts and Nebraska. While most states have signed on, they are still in the process of overhauling their own systems.
When the federal standards came out in 2015, DFPS opted out because the rules were too restrictive, an agency spokesperson said. The federal health department has since loosened regulations tied to the reimbursement.
"Now we are talking to other states about their experiences, and evaluating our own needs, before deciding next steps," said Patrick Crimmins, the DFPS spokesperson.
Michael Corrigan is part of one vendor team offering a program, VitalChild, that would meet those new federal standards. He said states can be hesitant to switch their systems to meet new guidelines because of competing priorities within the child welfare agency.
Corrigan said leadership turnover can also contribute to delays in prioritizing a big project like an IT system replacement. In recent months, DFPS has weathered a series of leadership changes, including the commissioner stepping into the lead position in January.
"Every day is chaos. When do they find the time?" Corrigan said. "Change is difficult. You got to have the money to start with and the time to figure out what (solution) would fit."
In the last decade, the state has spent $101 million in general revenue funds for modernization as well as other costs to maintain and update the system, according to state data obtained by Texas 2036.
The state is set to spend millions more dollars tweaking IMPACT. DFPS asked for 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 about $3 million this budget cycle to maintain.
Osborn, with Texas 2036, said sticking with IMPACT is squandering state money when a system replacement is imminent.
"Some of the efforts are there, but you can only put so many Band-Aids on a system that can’t do the basic functionality of what you want it to do," Osborn said.
This article first appeared in The Texas Tribune.
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