When the Good Guys Ride into the Sunset, Leaving Their Algorithms Behind

The push to embrace “predictive analytics,” an unreliable, racially biased method in which algorithms “inform” the decisions of caseworkers – decisions such as when to tear apart a family – is led largely by the same people who deny the very existence of a racial bias problem in child welfare, want to see far more families torn apart, or both.

They seem to be willfully blind to the enormous inherent risks of unnecessary foster care placement, including the risk of abuse or even death in foster care.

Opinion_Feature_ImageBut there are a few reform-minded leaders in child welfare who want it as well, for themselves. These reformers argue in effect: “You can trust us. We’ll only use our vast powers for good.”

I do trust them. But I don’t trust their successors.

That brings me to another lesson from the 2016 election, a lesson that extends beyond predictive analytics to a wide range of child welfare issues.

The lesson comes from how President Obama handled key national security issues. He believed the George W. Bush administration’s ends-justify-the-means approach to the “war on terror” had gone too far. But instead of pushing to change laws to make it harder for any president to abuse these powers, he opted for an approach that amounted to: Trust me.

Limits of the “Have-It-Both-Ways” Approach

The New York Times aptly described it as “President Obama’s have-it-both-ways approach to curbing what he saw as overreaching in the war on terrorism.” According to the Times:

Over and over, Mr. Obama has imposed limits on his use of such powers but has not closed the door on them — a flexible approach premised on the idea that he and his successors could be trusted to use them prudently. [Donald] Trump can now sweep away those limits and open the throttle on policies that Mr. Obama endorsed as lawful and legitimate for sparing use, like targeted killings in drone strikes and the use of indefinite detention and military tribunals for terrorism suspects.

 And even in areas where Mr. Obama tried to terminate policies from the George W. Bush era — like torture and the detention of Americans and other people arrested on domestic soil as “enemy combatants” — his administration fought in court to prevent any ruling that the defunct practices had been illegal.

I don’t know the average tenure of people who run public child welfare agencies, but I doubt it’s eight years, or even four. The reformers clamoring to get their hands on predictive analytics algorithms may intend to use them with great restraint. But there is nothing to stop their successors from using analytics any way they want.

Lessons Beyond Predictive Analytics

The lesson should extend beyond predictive analytics. Child welfare systems are unique in state and local government in the extent to which they wield vast power with little accountability.

  • Child protective services workers can search homes – and strip search children – based on no more than an anonymous tip.
  • They can walk out with the children entirely on their own authority, or ask law enforcement to do it for them, without any hearing beforehand.
  • When there finally is a hearing, the indigent parent – and most are indigent – may not get a lawyer at all. If she does, it’s likely to be an overloaded public defender she just met in the hallway five minutes before the hearing.
  • The standard of proof to hold the child indefinitely is not “beyond a reasonable doubt” as in a criminal case. The standard usually is merely “preponderance of the evidence” – slightly more likely than not – the same standard used to decide which insurance company pays for a fender bender.

The few reform-minded leaders of child welfare systems know all this.  And they know how this vast power, when abused, harms the children needlessly taken, and how it overloads workers so they’re less likely to find children in real danger. But their answer often is the same as President Obama’s approach to that other area with vast power and little accountability, national security: self-restraint.

Twenty years ago I met one such reformer. She’d spent years curbing needless removal in her state. But shortly after she left, when a new governor took office, there was a high-profile fatality. The governor panicked, and effectively ordered his new child welfare agency chief to do the same. “I was amazed at how quickly it could all be washed away,” she said.

So reformers who are serious about a lasting legacy need to get serious about curbing their own power. They should be urging lawmakers to, among other things, raise the standard of proof in child welfare cases and curb the ability of workers to misuse their “emergency” authority to remove children. (NCCPR’s full Due Process Agenda is available here.)

Most important, they should be creating institutional providers of high quality defense for families, along the lines of what’s been done in New York City. This is not a strategy to get “bad parents” off; it helps craft alternatives to the cookie-cutter service plans typically imposed on families even by relatively good child welfare agencies.

The best way to create a legacy of reform is to give families themselves the power to fight for it.

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Richard Wexler
About Richard Wexler 50 Articles
Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org. His interest in child welfare grew out of 19 years of work as a reporter for newspapers, public radio and public television. During that time, he won more than two dozen awards, many of them for stories about child abuse and foster care. He is the author of Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse (Prometheus Books: 1990, 1995).


  1. The ambulance service in my city uses an impressive system of predictive analytics to determine where best to locate ambulance teams within the city at any given time. Data culled from several years’ worth of ambulance calls allows them to stage teams accordingly depending on the time of day, the day of the week, the time of the year. It’s not perfect, but it has successfully decreased response times and improved service provision to the areas that require it most often. Predictive analytics can be similarly effective in child protection when used to determine where family services should be offered to ensure that children aren’t unnecessarily removed, to help identify the schools in which extra supports can be placed, to identify what kind of services should be offered, and to improve response times to family crises so that removal doesn’t have to be the only option. Can access to “big data” be abused or used for the wrong purpose? Certainly, just as any tool can be. That doesn’t necessarily mean we should completely right it off without giving it a fair shake. Trust is a problem regardless of what tools you use, whether Structured Decision Making or a child protection worker’s individual gut instincts, but I would think that access to better data would be a good thing.

  2. “Child protective services workers can search homes – and strip search children – based on no more than an anonymous tip.”

    This is not accurate. Federal case law has established that the 4th amendment applies to child protection investigations. CPS workers have to demonstrate that one of three 4th amendment criteria applies in order to search homes or children: consent, a court order, or exigent circumstances. “An anonymous tip” has been ruled NOT sufficient to constitute exigent circumstances on its own.

    I don’t disagree with every point you make here, and in fact I’m aligned with you on many of them. But there’s no reason to make your point with incorrect or distorted information.

    • Thanks for your response, Mr. Wexler. I think you know that when you say “Child welfare workers CAN search homes….” there is a clear implication that that this is a legally allowable act, which it is not.

      Based on the blog post you linked, it seems that the argument you’re actually making is that there are anecdotal indicators that the 4th amendment restrictions on CPS worker actions are not always followed. If that is your argument, state it in a clear, undistorted way and provide evidence to support it. It’s disingenuous to state (or even imply) that it is legal to search a home and/or child (without consent, a court order, or exigent circumstances) and then just casually reply that the law “doesn’t matter” when your inaccurate statement is challenged.

      I’m very familiar with the “real world of child welfare” – I’ve spent my
      entire career working both inside and outside the child protection
      system to promote better child welfare practice and policies. I am a critic/skeptic of many aspects of the system (including the predictive analytics craze), so you can try to dismiss me as a CPS apologist, but it’s not true. And I can tell you that, while you’re right that policies vary greatly across jurisdictions, it is just not true that the law “doesn’t matter,” and by no means do all judges “rubber-stamp” all actions on the part of child welfare workers. There are no doubt bad actors at all levels of the system, but there are also many judges and attorneys, as well as CPS workers, administrators, and supervisors, who take the law very seriously in their mandate to protect children who need it.

      I appreciate your reform-minded voice in the child welfare discourse, but your arguments will be stronger if you take care to make accurate statements supported by more than your own impressions or a few anecdotal news items.

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