Ronnie Polaneczky: Fla. high-tech system shows promise in tracking children

Danieal Kelly: Was she visited?
Danieal Kelly: Was she visited?
Posted: February 16, 2010

DID SOCIAL workers have face-to-face meetings with Danieal Kelly and her family three times a week, the way they were supposed to?

That's the issue at the heart of the federal trial unfolding now in the death of Danieal at age 14.

The feds say the look-sees never took place.

They've charged employees of MultiEthnic Behavioral Health - the now-defunct agency paid by the Department of Human Services to protect Danieal - with fraud (and also with obstruction, for trying to cover-up their alleged deceit).

Sitting through the trial's opening arguments two weeks ago, I kept wondering: Why do we rely in the first place on the word of agency workers that these visits took place? Surely there's an independent way to verify that workers have seen their clients?

Turns out there is.

Over the past two years, Florida's Department of Children and Families has been phasing in a child-tracking program so brilliant, you gotta wonder why no one came up with it sooner:

Caseworkers document each visit to a kid in DCF care by snapping a cell-phone photo of the child. The technology in these special phones not only stamps the picture with the visit's time and date but also uses GPS technology to pinpoint the place where the picture was taken.

The tamper-proof photo is then uploaded into the state's electronic-records system, where it becomes part of the child's file. If the child isn't seen by the caseworker within the next required time period, the system generates an alert that travels up the chain of command to let everyone - not just the caseworker - know that a child is overdue for a face-to-face.

The photo record a) ensures that kids are seen when and where they're supposed to be seen, and b) protects caseworkers wrongly accused of shirking their duties.

Might Danieal be alive today if the same system existed here?

Florida's program grew out of a case as horrific as Danieal's.

In 2002, it was discovered that a 5-year old named Rilya Wilson, placed by the state into foster care in Miami, had disappeared.

Eventually, Rilya's lying, lazy caseworker admitted she hadn't seen Rilya in 17 months, but had altered her records to indicate that the chubby-cheeked little girl was "thriving" in placement.

Though Rilya's body has never been found, her foster caregiver has been charged with murder. (Rilya's disgrace of a caseworker wasn't charged, but her behavior prompted legislation making it a felony to falsify child-welfare records).

Rilya's disappearance prompted an anguished investigation that revealed an overburdened, technically backward state system so dysfunctional that "misplacing" a child was as easy as losing a sock.

Finally, someone asked the right question: If companies like UPS and FedEx can track packages in real time, why can't the same technology be used to track DCF kids in Florida?

The answer took six years of research, millions in federal dollars and the partial privatization of Florida's child-welfare system. But the result is a system that seems, in many ways, to be closing the gaping holes that allowed Rilya's case to happen.

Called Kids Connect, the system is designed around two devices: a sturdy laptop connected to the state's electronic child-welfare system, on which caseworkers take notes in real time while in the field; and a specially adapted BlackBerry, used to create photo validation of the visit.

Not all of Florida's caseworkers, who are employed by private agencies hired by DCF, are using the system yet. But the caseworkers in the largest agency, Miami's "Our Kids," are giving it thumbs-up.

"We wondered if we'd have caseworkers leaving in droves" because of the degree of accountability the system calls for, says Fran Allegra, the agency's executive director. But her mostly young workforce - tech-savvy types frustrated by the paperwork they used to have to fill out by hand, back at the office - feel liberated by the system.

"They're telling us that it lets them be social workers instead of paper pushers," Allegra says.

So can we do the same thing here? DHS commissioner Annemarie Ambrose is already on it.

"What Florida is doing is terrific," says Ambrose, who has been working with Florida's DCF administrators to see what Philly might learn from the Sunshine State about "moving into the 21st century."

DHS will soon pilot 25 devices, similar to Florida's, among staffers investigating emergencies involving children under age 5. The pilot results will determine the next phase of modernization.

Ambrose hungrily envisions a day when Philly's DHS is every bit as mobile, flexible and responsive as Florida's child-welfare workforce is becoming.

I hunger for that day, too. But I don't think we have to wait until a multimillion-dollar, tried-and-tested system is in place to take advantage, right now, of one piece of technology already at most caseworkers' fingertips.

On each visit, we should require that caseworkers snap a cell-phone photo of the child they're overseeing. Most cell-phones have e-mail capability, so they could send the photo to a designated e-mail address at DHS, as proof of the visit.

It won't be perfect. But it's a start.

And any caseworkers who flinch at the idea, well, maybe we don't want them minding our kids in the first place.

E-mail or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns: Read Ronnie's blog at

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