The child welfare component of the state’s NC FAST computer system is a $92 million money pit. Its epic malfunction is putting children’s safety at risk.

State Department of Health and Human Services officials and directors of county social services departments gave that grim assessment to lawmakers Tuesday, March 19, along with a hard choice.

The state could continue pumping money into flawed technology that turned obsolete before becoming fully functional. Or it could scrap the program, pay a steep federal penalty, and allocate another $100 million or so in tax revenues to develop a new system.

NC FAST is the acronym for N.C. Families Accessing Services Through Technology, which serves millions of citizens through a variety of government programs. It is the engine for a variety of social services programs including Food and Nutrition Services, Medicaid, Work First, and Child Care.

NC FAST was designed in part for the state’s child welfare system to replace numerous antiquated operating systems, consolidate efforts, reduce staff paperwork and time, and better track individuals and operations.

Failing to reach those goals is a concern since 133,538 children were the subjects of abuse and neglect assessments in fiscal year 2018; 41 percent of them were 5 years old or younger. Maltreatment was detected in 21 percent of cases.  

“Until state-level child welfare data is available, we really cannot adequately monitor and oversee counties, and know how we’re doing, and counties cannot have access to cross-county information” to know if a child or family has a history of abuse or neglect elsewhere, Susan Perry-Manning, DHHS deputy secretary, said during her presentation to the Joint Appropriations Committee on Health and Human Services.

That poses a problem. The state’s child welfare system already is under a federal performance improvement plan, and faces the threat of a $1.7 million penalty after failing to comply with all 14 performance measures from a 2015 federal assessment. It also was cited for not having a statewide case management information system.

“I’m concerned that our next federal review will demonstrate the exact same concerns that we’ve had since 2015 about data and the ability to protect children,” said Heather Skeens, Guilford County social services director.

Some bills haven’t been paid since August 2017 due to problems with the system, Skeens said. She has had to ask county commissioners to make reimbursements while awaiting state payments. Data isn’t accessible after it is entered into the system.

Problems with NC FAST are so severe, Skeens said, her department experienced a 75 percent turnover among social services workers. All 11 employees who resigned March 1 cited frustration with NC FAST.

“We are desperate for automation in child welfare,” said Kristy Preston, Surry County social services director. But NC FAST is not the answer.

“We’re experiencing an increased amount of time to do just about everything that we do in child welfare with the system.” The time would be spent better by staff in the field to ensure children’s safety, Preston said.

Because of the myriad problems, DHHS scrapped plans to add the Division of Adult and Aging Services to the NC FAST program.

The first version of NC FAST rolled out as a pilot in five counties in August 2017.

Problems were identified immediately, and instead of a statewide rollout, six more counties were added to the pilot program. A pause was ordered in March 2018 to fix the problems. The plan is to incrementally add counties still doing all their work on a paper-based system, with the system fully functioning by October.

“I don’t see any reason why we’re moving ahead when we haven’t caught up yet,” said Rep. Larry Potts, R-Davidson, a committee co-chairman.

Perry-Manning said replacing NC FAST would cost at least as much as the $92 million already invested in it. The state paid $42 million, with the rest coming from federal funds. But if the state abandoned the system, Washington could impose a $52 million penalty. It would take several years to design and develop a new system.

Slowing down the rollout while fixing the glitches would cost about $3 million a month, half paid by the state.

A third option would allow the 11 pilot counties to continue testing the system. Counties with old computer programs would still use them, and counties without computer programs would maintain paper-based systems. But the state would violate the federal improvement plan by suspending NC FAST, and face a $750,000 penalty. It would cost $4.2 million for new training, half from the state, to lift the suspension and resume development.