Officials at the California Department of Social Services should be more than a little embarrassed that journalists at the Contra Costa Times did easily what the state agency overseeing the care of our most vulnerable residents has been unable to accomplish. That was to make information about violations at state-licensed facilities in which the elderly live available to the public.
The reporters simply requested data from the state, and then did the tedious, but important, work of plugging it into a database. The result was published this month on the newspaper's website - a searchable database into which anyone can plug in the name of one of the 7,000 licensed senior care facilities throughout the state and find out if it had been fined by the DSS and, if so, how many times and how much. It doesn't say what those fines are for; one would have to call the DSS to find out.
It's not much information, to be sure. But it's one bright light shining on an otherwise dark landscape.
The publishing of the database was made all the more significant in that it came days after a legislative hearing to discuss how the department can better monitor residential care facilities. This was a few months after more than a dozen mentally ill and elderly residents of a Castro Valley residential care center were essentially abandoned after DSS shut it down for unfixed violations. After the closure and abandonment of residents at Valley Springs Manor was reported, it turned out that the facility had an extended history of poor management and debt. That's something that the public should have been able to find out online.
It isn't that DSS has something to hide, unless it's an unfortunate attachment to plaid shirts and Nirvana. What's been holding the department back is that, technology-wise, it is stuck in the early 1990s. Its computer system is still based on Lotus Notes, according to a DSS spokesman. To be able to post the full incident reports online, as the department would like to do, will take a massive and expensive system upgrade and the hiring of dozens more bodies.
Sadly, that's the answer from every government agency in the response to technology. In this case, however, the money should not be an obstacle. Senior care facilities aren't inspected often enough as it is, which makes it all the more imperative that the public have access to any information available.
Right now, the only information DSS posts online is basic. You can search for a residential care facility on its website, and then get back a short citation with name, contact information and address, license number and number of clients. If you want more information, the website directs you to contact or visit the local and regional offices to get the facility's licensing file as well as complaints.
That's not enough, certainly not for a public that expects instant online access to reviews and information about any business. To be fair, the DSS technological track record is no worse than its peers. Most state departments are abysmal about updating their computer systems, and failures have cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
DSS spokesman Michael Weston told The Sacramento Bee's editorial board last week the agency had been planning to put similar information online this spring even before the newspaper database was published. This will include slightly more information, as it will give either an "A" or "B" grade to the violations listed. "A" grades aren't good; they represent a violation that constitutes an immediate threat to the health and safety of residents. A "B" violation may only be a lapse in paperwork.
Those distinctions will certainly help the public get a better picture of the care at a certain facility, but for a complete view, the department must find the way to get more information to the public.