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How many parents seeking counseling, drug rehab or other help will stick around for the services they need once they learn that the most intimate details of their family life will be entered onto a statewide computer system, accessible to hundreds of child welfare caseworkers? Not a lot, say administrators of many of New York's nonprofit family service agencies, who think they'll have to go to court to safeguard sensitive case files.

In February, the new computer network, called CONNECTIONS, is slated to link up the heretofore badly disconnected New York State and city child welfare systems. For years, the city's child welfare agency used 26 separate computer systems, each unable to communicate with the others. Many case files have been kept on paper. As a result, there have been cases where important information known to an agency worker remained hidden–when it could have protected a child's life.

But widespread sharing of family secrets poses serious problems. In 1982, a federal court barred the state from demanding broad distribution of paperwork describing the problems of clients who voluntarily sought help from local social service providers. But now, state and city officials are saying the agencies must upload the electronically stored information into CONNECTIONS.

“We're talking about very sensitive information like HIV status, incest, chemical dependency,” says Michael Arsham, director of socxial service policy at the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, an association of child welfare agencies. He and agency representatives are concerned that if clients know their files will be accessible to the statewide system, they'll be scared away, leaving serious problems unattended.

In Fiscal Year 1997, more than 15,000 families elected to seek preventive services from 78 nonprofits around New York City. “When a family comes in voluntarily and signs an application for counseling to avoid difficulties at home, they should have protection,” says Sister Mary Paul Janchill, cofounder of the Center for Family Life, a nonprofit social service agency in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

The sister was one of a group of advocates that brought the 1982 case against the state. She says they might have to go to court again because they have been unable to come to an agreement with the city's Administration for Children's Services, which is implementing the $67 million CONNECTIONS computerization project. The most recent move from ACS, in the form of an October 28 letter from counsel Gerald Harris, calls for more negotiations. Both sides say they hope the matter doesn't wind up in court.

“We believe that, ultimately, electronic case records are more secure than paper records,” Harris wrote. “Presently, supervision by high level ACS management is frustrated because important case information is only available at the sites.” ACS would not comment on the matter to City Limits.

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