L.A.’s Vulnerable Kids Caught in the Middle as the “Elephants” of Analytics Fight

“When elephants fight,” the proverb goes, “the grass gets hurt.”

As Los Angeles deals with the aftermath of another child abuse tragedy, the death of Yonatan Aguilar, the debate over how to fix the system is devolving into a fight between two of the field’s “elephants.”

They’re fighting over which of two flawed, racially biased approaches to trying to predict which children are in danger should predominate in the biggest child welfare “market” in the country.

Opinion_Feature_ImageThey’re being egged on by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors – or as this particular governing body should properly be known, simply “The B.S.” The B.S. is doing what it always does about child welfare issues: micromanage and grandstand.

The entire shameful spectacle only diverts attention from the problem that’s been at the root of Los Angeles’ child welfare crisis for decades: a take-the-child-and-run mentality that does enormous harm to children needlessly taken. It also so overloads caseworkers that they can’t do a thorough investigation of any case, no matter what decision-making tool they use.

Los Angeles takes away children at double the rate of New York City and triple the rate of Chicago. That didn’t save Yonatan Aguilar, Gabriel Fernandez or the many who came before. Of course, New York and Chicago also have horrifying cases involving deaths of children “known to the system.” But does anyone really believe that Los Angeles children are twice as safe from abuse as children in New York City and three times as safe as children in Chicago?

On the contrary, the take-the-child-and-run approach makes all children less safe.

The more that workers are overwhelmed with false allegations, trivial cases and children who don’t need to be in foster care, the less time they have to find children in real danger. So they make even more mistakes in all directions. That’s almost always the real reason for the tragedies that make headlines. But instead of getting to the heart of the problem, the supervisors are obsessing over whether to replace one flawed system of risk assessment with another.

Two Flawed Models of Risk Assessment

Right now, Los Angeles caseworkers use an approach called “Structured Decision Making.” They fill out questionnaires that rate families, then feed the results into a computer that supposedly tells the caseworkers how high the risk is in the families.

But a study in Michigan found that while SDM has a veneer of objectivity, many of the determinations workers make are highly subjective. The Michigan study also found that risk factors that appear to be race neutral are anything but. Simply being a young parent is deemed a risk. So is being a single parent. Black parents are more likely to be young and more likely to be single.

Other “risk factors” are self-reinforcing. A child is rated at higher risk if there have been previous reports of maltreatment. But, precisely because of poverty, which is easily confused with “neglect, ” and because of racial bias, poor black families are more likely to be subjects of such reports.

So it’s no wonder officials at the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) suggested in 2007 that SDM contributed to a rapid increase in children taken from their parents in Los Angeles County. DCFS has acknowledged that the racial disparity in the Los Angeles system has increased since SDM began.

An evaluation by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that using SDM may have increased racial bias in child removals in that state.

SDM’s competitor is “predictive analytics,” which is essentially SDM on steroids. The analytics software uses demographic factors to compute alleged risk. It’s being touted by, among others, SAS, a giant software firm which points to its own analysis of its own test as evidence that it works.

But the test also found that 95 percent of the time, when the software predicted a catastrophe if the child was not taken away, the software was wrong. And, like SDM, predictive analytics has a major racial bias problem.

Both SDM and predictive analytics amount to the same thing: computerized racial profiling.

Switching from one to the other will only contribute to another spike in needless entries into foster care, doing enormous harm to the children who are needlessly taken. It will also further overwhelm caseworkers, making it even more likely that they’ll miss the next Yonatan Aguilar.

If that happens, the members of “The B.S.” will surely race to express their “shock” and “outrage” before the television cameras. And the cycle will begin all over again.

The elephants are fighting, but this time it’s not grass that’s getting hurt – it’s innocent children.

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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. Kim et al. (2008) found that “participants in our study reported finding
    SDM helpful when making decisions about whether a child is currently
    safe, whether to promote a referral to a case, whether to remove a
    child, whether to return a child to her/his family and whether to close a
    case,” and that “overwhelmingly, data from our study suggests that the
    SDM model is worth pursing in Los Angeles County and in other child
    welfare agencies. Findings suggest that use of SDM positively impacts
    workers decision making and that it offers several other benefits to
    workers” (Kim, A.K., Brooks, Kim, H., & Nissly, J., 2008). Link:

    A temporal validation of the SDM risk assessment used in
    many California counties demonstrates that a risk assessment completed by
    workers under field conditions can demonstrate equitable risk classifications
    (Wicke Dankert & Johnson, K., 2013). Link: http://www.nccdglobal.org/sites/default/files/publication_pdf/risk-assessment-validation.pdf

    Dr. Will Johnson (2004) showed that SDM risk classifications were equitable,
    i.e., families within the same risk category had similar percentages
    experiencing subsequent maltreatment across the observed ethnic groups (African
    American, Latino, and White). Link: http://www.nccdglobal.org/sites/default/files/publication_pdf/ca_sdm_model_feb04.pdf

    • The first study cited by “NCCD” appears to say nothing about whether SDM is or isn’t biased. It only tells us that caseworkers and administrators like it. The second study was done by the same organization that created and sells SDM. The third study was done by the then research director for “the California Structured Decision Making Project.”

      And the comment itself was posted by the organization that created and markets SDM, but whoever posted it did not make that clear. (You have to know what NCCD stands for – National Council on Crime and Delinquency – to know that they’re the ones behind SDM.)

      In contrast, the Michigan and Washington State evaluations cited in my column were done by researchers with no connection to the SDM makers or marketers.

      The very fact that whoever posted the comment was not upfront about all this should make people even more cautious about using Structured Decision-Making.

      –Richard Wexler

  2. I’m not sure where you’re getting your information but the California SDM Family Risk Assessment does not in any place score for the parent’s age or relationship status. This information is blatantly inaccurate. Racial disparity is definitely an issue with the system, but the problem LA has with SDM has far more to do with social worker training and use of the system rather than issues with SDM itself.

    • As the paragraph in question makes clear, the use of factors such as parents’ age and relationship status has to do with SDM in Michigan. Please click the link in that paragraph and see page 25. The comments about SDM contributing to increased removals in Los Angeles come from Los Angeles officials. And DCFS itself has acknowledged that the racial disparity in the Los Angeles system has increased since SDM began. Again, please click on the links for details.

  3. Richard, we need you in Arizona as the crisis is growing worse . Please join us on Facebook at END CPS CRIMES – BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY

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