updated 9/30/2004 10:01:08 PM ET 2004-10-01T02:01:08

In another black eye for Florida's child-welfare agency, officials acknowledged that confidential records for nearly 4,000 abused and neglected children were available on the Internet until this week.

The files were accessible on the Web site of Kids Central, a privately run child welfare agency. They included the names of foster children, birth dates, Social Security numbers, photographs and case histories. They even provided directions and maps to children's foster homes.

The Department of Children & Families, which oversees Kids Central under a contract, had the Web site shut down Wednesday after being alerted by The Miami Herald, said Janice Johnson, chief executive officer of Kids Central. There is no evidence that any child was harmed as a result of the problem, The Herald reported in a story Thursday.

Kids Central began phasing in the computer system, called CoBRIS, around April or May. It was designed to let private caseworkers access the state's child welfare computer system, called HomeSafenet, using the Internet.

The confidential information was available because computer help desk officials allowed all support requests to be viewed online, without passwords. Many of the requests came from caseworkers who had trouble gaining access to HomeSafenet. Some of the replies included user names and passwords to access the confidential files.

"We take very, very seriously the confidentiality of client information; it is paramount to what we do," Johnson said Wednesday. "We have already made changes. We are resetting every password, and we are changing the process by which we give out passwords."

"We have taken immediate action when it became apparent there was a flaw," said Don Thomas, the state agency's top administrator in the central Florida.

CoBRIS, which stands for Community Based Resource Information System, is being developed by Edmetrics, a Tallahassee company that was founded by James Bax. Bax headed the department in the 1970s.

Bax was friends with Ben Harris, the agency's information chief who backed the CoBRIS project. Harris resigned in July after a report prepared by Bush's inspector general found he took gifts and trips from companies contracting with the agency.

Edmetrics officials did not return a phone message early Thursday.

"Who in the world is responsible for monitoring this kind of stuff?" said Chelly Schembera, a retired child-welfare administrator. "This is a gross violation of confidentiality, and it compromises the integrity of the entire system."

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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