Legislation creating a centralized state database of social services is moving through the House with powerful backers, and the sponsor says a recent change to federal law makes it imperative to pass it now.
"Some federal programs under Family First are going to affect DFCS and foster care greatly," said Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome. "There are waivers available, but we're going to need that data to show what's working."
The Family First Prevention Services Act, signed by President Trump last year, changes how federal foster care funding is allocated. The idea is to keep families together, so more money will go to education and counseling programs. That means less, however, for group institutions such as the Murphy-Harpst home for abused and neglected children in Cedartown.
Dempsey on Friday introduced House Bill 197 establishing the Strategic Integrated Data System — the SIDS Project — which calls for all state agencies providing physical and mental health services to pool their data.
The reports, with information identifying clients removed, would be housed under the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget. The database would be available to policy-makers, researchers and state universities studying ways to make programs more effective and cost-efficient.
"It will give us insight from existing data but will also be configured to do deeper dives," Dempsey said.
She and Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, co-chaired a study committee last year to examine ways to overcome the challenges of sharing medical information across agencies. Their resulting bills both stalled, but Dempsey said Gov. Brian Kemp is supportive of HB 197.
"I've been working with the governor's staff and OPB and I think they're prepared to do it," she said.
The House supplemental budget for FY 2019 contains $750,000 to get started on the database, which would be set to go live Sept. 1.
"We're hoping the Senate will increase that, or that DFCS can find some grant money," she said.
The Division of Family and Children Services interim director, Tom C. Rawlings, is ready to implement the database as an agency tool, Dempsey said.
An immediate benefit would be to the center that fields calls about child abuse and neglect. Screeners would be able to check services and reports across agencies to prioritize responses, she said.
"So many people here (in the Legislature) are upset about those two lost children in Effingham County that I think there's a will to get something done," Dempsey said. "We've got to get systems talking to each other."
The remains of two children were found buried behind a home in Guyton in late December. One hadn't been seen for two years and the other hadn't been seen for several months, the Associated Press reported, but officials with different agencies had been told conflicting stories about their whereabouts.
Their father, stepmother and two other relatives are charged with child cruelty and concealing a death. Authorities are awaiting the results of autopsies to determine how the boy and girl died. A third child with special needs was taken into protective custody.
Co-sponsors of the bipartisan HB 197 include two longtime healthcare advocates and the chairmen of the House appropriations and rules committees.
The bill would set up a nine-member board of governors charged with vetting requests for data. The four voting members would be appointees from the Senate and the House, a citizen with legal expertise in protecting privacy and a citizen with technical expertise in securing large data systems.
Non-voting members would be a hired director of the SIDS Project, the state auditor, and the directors of the OPB, public health and community health departments.