Getting around NOMADS isn’t easy
It happened in a flash – a simple accidental bump of the baby finger against the wrong key, and NOMADS stopped. I smacked the escape key, to no avail since it does precious little in NOMADS.
The screen stalled for a full 30 seconds before my instructor gave me the bad news: “You’re out.” My only option was to exit, even though doing so would delete everything I had entered in the past 20 minutes.
That might be expected for a student who has no experience with the program and is just sitting at the terminal for an hour or two under the guidance of a tutor. But I was in my fourth full day of working on the system.
Washoe County’s old system, the so-called “Legacy” which is used in one form or another by most Nevada counties, took just a couple of hours instruction before I was pumping out case closures including legal letters and formal documents resolving issues for the county’s family support division.
After a week on NOMADS, I still needed extensive notes and a “trainer” at my shoulder to work my way through a case in a system that doesn’t tell you where to go next or whether you’ve made some critical error in what you just completed.
The problems with NOMADS begin with the fact that it isn’t a Windows-based system.
The program greets users with a screen that has 25 options presented as cryptic acronyms: APEN, CPRO, JURD.
There are no buttons to click on, like the programs most computer users are accustomed to. Instead, you TAB down to the appropriate function, enter an “X” on the line and hit ENTER.
In most cases, that gets you another screen covered with a dozen or more new acronyms to choose from.
Any misstep, and there are a lot of things that can go wrong, can force the worker to backtrack, sometimes several screens, to fix. And an unfortunately high percentage of errors simply have no solution other than to start that section over.
“NOMADS is archaic,” said Washoe District Attorney Dick Gammick. “It’s an old, old language.”
Some errors – such as the seemingly innocent error of misspelling a father’s name – can’t just be corrected. The correction creates a “pseudo” name or “alias,” effectively tainting the man as the kind of guy who may have changed his name to avoid paying child support. But it also makes it very difficult to find the father again later, since he’s listed under the incorrectly spelled name, not under the corrected “pseudo.”
Other typing mistakes get the operator “bing-bonged” – an alarm noise the computer makes when rejecting input – and dumped out of the program.
An example would be a woman who doesn’t know her ex-boyfriend’s Social Security number. The program won’t take the file without it, so she can’t open the case.
Once you get to the proper screen, you use the TAB key or cursor to get to the correct blanks and fill them in. When finished with that screen, you have to save the information you entered.
In most cases, you save by hitting the ENTER key. But not always. In two different screens you have to hit enter twice. If you don’t, the information doesn’t save when you go to the next task. But if you automatically hit ENTER twice where it’s not required, the next screen that comes up will be saved with no data in it. Then you have to go back and correct that.
In one other place, you have to go to a blank at the bottom right-hand corner of the screen and type the word SAVE, then hit ENTER.
Like everything else in NOMADS, nothing on any of those screens tells you which method of saving data is the right one.
But you don’t want to accidentally hit that ENTER key. If you do, sometimes it saves the stuff you have typed and leaves the rest of that screen blank. You may have to call the state’s “help desk” to get that screen reopened to finish it. Other times it kicks you out back to an earlier screen.
NOMADS gives almost no help in navigating through it. In other words, after Step A, the caseworker has to know where to go for Step B since the machine doesn’t take you there.
The best example is in entering the information that records court actions and payments. From the main screen with 25 options, you put an X in front of DOCK, then hit enter. At DOCK, you put an X on the line and go to a screen that makes sure all the children are attached to this case.
When that task is done, you go back to DOCK and enter a K on the line to do the legal caption information. But unlike most screens, you have to hit F5 before it will actually let you type in the caption information.
After saving the caption, you return to DOCK and enter an S for the support calculation screen, then fill in the financial calculation sheet.
Here you have to put a Y on a little line before hitting ENTER to save your work. If you don’t? Do it over, please.
Back to DOCK again, you put an A on that line to fill in the payment history of the case – both payments made and arrears owed. This time to save, you hit ENTER, put in a little Y on the line to show you want to save the data, and hit ENTER again. And this procedure has to be done on each screen needed to fill in the entire payment history. Since each screen only holds about a dozen entries, an old case may have a dozen screens that must be filled out and saved individually.
When completed, go back to DOCK and then to the order screen – that’s E for “entry,” not O for “order.”
On the order screen you find that famous two-digit date, the only one in the program.
But that’s a minor annoyance. More importantly, you can’t change the order screen once it’s entered without creating a phony new court order. If you do, NOMADS automatically tries to schedule a new court date for the case.
At each step, you get back to that “DOCK” screen by hitting F12, F3 or F4. But if you accidentally do that before saving the screen, it forgets everything you just typed there.
“It’s a maze of booby traps for the caseworker,” says one Washoe County veteran.
Caseworkers in Washoe and Douglas, the two counties with the most experience, say the scariest thing is that there’s often no warning in NOMADS that you’ve done anything wrong. You may not know you made an error until the program automatically stops a check from going out on time.
And for a prime example of NOMADS logic, the list where you have to find the name of the judge handling the case is arranged alphabetically – by the judge’s first names, not last.
And it includes not only every judge in Nevada, which would be fewer than 100 names, but every practicing lawyer – more than a thousand names.
But you have to put the judge’s name in by X-ing it on that list or the program won’t automatically put it in on court orders and other necessary places in the case file. So a court order would be printed without any indication which judge or court it belongs to.
For months, the biggest county complaint was that it took upwards of 40 seconds for NOMADS to move from one screen to another. During peak periods, the wait sometimes hit 2 full minutes, guaranteeing hours of wasted time trying to input or manage cases in NOMADS.
Throughout the past year, the state consistently denied that was a problem. But, in a recent interview, officials announced that the problem now has been fixed. The fix came when the state’s Department of Information Technology made changes in how data transfers in and out of the mainframe.
When the repair was described to Washoe officials, they shook their heads. It was precisely the recommendation the county’s computer expert made more than eight months earlier, they said.
“We’ve been maintaining sub-second response time for three weeks now,” said State Welfare Director Myla Florence.
Not true: this reporter was working cases on the system during that period and response times were in the 20- to 30-second range. A check of the system this past week confirmed that a 20-second wait between screens is still common unless you’re at the NOMADS office in Carson City where the computers are located.
The biggest complaints by caseworkers involve the way NOMADS holds up checks. The program is supposed to make sure that money doesn’t go places it’s not supposed to. So any problem with the case effectively stops the check.
Turner said that in most cases, caseworkers don’t have authorization to look into the system and see the error until after the check has been halted.
While Florence correctly points out that the system is generally accurate when it says something is wrong, Gammick and Douglas County’s Chief Civil Deputy Brian Chally point out that, in the meantime, the single mother can’t get the money she’s entitled to get.
Gammick said the state had more than $300,000 tied up that should be going out to single moms for one month because the system kept holding up checks. He says a caseworker should make a judgment call and get the money out the door but that NOMADS doesn’t trust caseworkers.
State welfare’s NOMADS chief Gary Stagliano said NOMADS is “doing what it’s supposed to.”
“Most of these are things where they don’t agree with federal rules and NOMADS won’t allow them to do that stuff,” he said.
Washoe Family Support lawyer Susan Hallahan says one man asked that his IRS check, which the state intercepted, be applied to his back child support.
“They can’t get it done,” she said, even after trying for more than four months. “The state has a significant amount of money in IRS and unemployment collections. They don’t know how to get it out, but who has to take the irate calls? Our caseworker.”
She said in one case, the court ordered the state to refund an IRS check it should never have intercepted in the first place.
“When they did, they charged him $7 for handling,” she said. “Ridiculous.”
To prepare this story, reporter Geoff Dornan spent 200 hours working in the Washoe County Family Support Division during a period spanning four months on both the old Legacy computer system used by most Nevada counties and the new NOMADS system.