Computer system crashes putting children at risk, B.C. watchdog says

May 7, 2014

The computer system used to protect vulnerable children crashed again Wednesday afternoon, barely an hour after B.C.’s technology minister offered assurances that it was fixed.

Andrew Wilkinson told reporters before question period that the integrated case management system was up and running after a weeklong series of “intermittent slowdowns.”

But Wilkinson no sooner entered the legislature than NDP children’s critic Carole James broke the news to him that the $182-million system had shut down again.

The abashed minister later met with reporters in the hallway to confirm that James had more up-to-date information than he did.

“What has happened is I was informed over the lunch hour that the system had rebooted, 1,500 users had signed on and things were going well,” he said. “It’s now gone down again, and I am not at all happy about this.

“This is clearly a system that’s unstable. We’re going to get to the bottom of this, we’re going to report back to the house and to the people of British Columbia what’s gone on, and we’re going to seek our remedies.”

But James said the system’s instability should come as no surprise to Wilkinson.

“The minister obviously isn’t paying attention,” she said. “Let’s remember that this is almost 200 million of taxpayers’ dollars spent on a computer system that has continually had problems since it was put in place.”

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.’s representative for children and youth, said the public safety warning she issued about the system in 2012 has never been lifted and that the repeated shutdowns are putting children and families at risk.

“This is a disaster,” she told reporters. “This entire [integrated case management] debacle has not worked.”

She said social workers have been calling her office for a week in a “flat-out panic” at being unable to access information needed to keep children safe.

“This type of dysfunction, where a system doesn’t work, would never be tolerated for hours in the banking system,” she told the child and youth committee of MLAs. “However, for a week we have not had a functioning information system in the child-welfare system.”

Children’s Minister Stephanie Cadieux rejected suggestions that the system failures are putting children and youth at risk. She said the ministry has emergency backup systems and that social workers can pull the hard copies of files and use the telephone to contact their counterparts in other offices.

“I believe that we have adequate safety measures in place to ensure that, at all times, our most vulnerable citizens have access to the services and supports they need,” she said.

Turpel-Lafond said that simply isn’t true. “They shut off their old system,” she said. “There’s nothing else. What’s the fallback? Little pieces of paper on workers’ desks.”

With the system down, she said, police investigating a domestic violence case have no way of knowing whether social workers have had contact with children in the home.

“A social worker today, going out to a home to remove a child, will not know whether in that home there are weapons, won’t even know, perhaps, the last-known address of the child or who will be in the home, and will not be able to share that with police or others,” she told MLAs.

Poverty advocates, meanwhile, say vulnerable families and adults have been unable to get shelter and support payments, security deposits or crisis grants due to computer crashes.

“The system has been mostly down for the past week rather than just a few intermittent problems,” said Sarah Kahn, a staff lawyer with the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre. “We’re pretty worried that this might become an ongoing problem. We’re also concerned that there seems to be no backup plan in place.”

Social Development Minister Don McRae, who oversees welfare and disability payments, said the cheques for May have been issued, and that ministry staff have prioritized other cases to help those who need it most.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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