Pennsylvania Still Lacks Computerized Child Welfare System Network

Article excerpt

Four-year-old Kristen Tatar's emaciated body was wrapped in garbage bags, stuffed inside a picnic cooler and left out with the trash at her parents Armstrong County home.

Her death in 2003 brought calls for creation of a computerized network that would allow all counties and the state to share information about children receiving child welfare services anywhere in Pennsylvania.

Eight years later, that network does not exist.

Kristen had been removed several times from her parents because of neglect when they lived in Westmoreland County. She even spent a year in foster care. Her parents later moved to Parks in Armstrong County. Armstrong County child welfare authorities said they asked for but didn't receive information from Westmoreland County about the child.

Kristen's father, James, and her mother, Janet Crawford, received life sentences for Kristen's death from starvation.

Officials in Armstrong and Westmoreland counties cited flaws in the state's child-welfare system that made it difficult to obtain the case histories of children whose families moved from one county to another.

About 192,000 children received child welfare services in Pennsylvania in 2009-2010.

Some steps have been taken but it may not be until 2015 that a $85.8 million system linking all counties and the state is fully operational, said Cathy Utz, director of the state Department of Public Welfare's bureau of policy, programs and operations.

The project has been delayed because it is expensive and labor- intensive, she said. Pennsylvania's 67 counties also have technological capabilities ranging from sophisticated to rudimentary.

"Having the exact same system in every single county in Pennsylvania really wasn't the best option," said Utz, who noted even her department uses mostly paper records today.

"It's a fundamental reflection how in so many ways, these kids' vulnerabilities are not on people's radar screens," said Cathy Palm, head of the Protect our Children Committee, a statewide coalition to prevent child abuse.

Chuck Songer, executive director of the Pennsylvania Children and Youth Administrators Association, said that while he's aware of a lack of centralized information, "a lot counties have developed sophisticated systems over the years . …