L.A. Supes Want Answers on Child Abuse Risk Assessment, Fast  

In response to the death of an 11-year-old boy, the Los Angeles County Office of Child Protection will evaluate how the county’s child protection system measures risk and report to the Board of Supervisors in 30 days.

During a board meeting yesterday, the five county supervisors discussed the need to evaluate how social workers in the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) assess risk and to compare the tools they use with potential alternatives.

The motion, introduced by Supervisors Michael Antonovich and Mark Ridley-Thomas, called to give the Office of Child Protection 60 days to report back, but the supervisors amended the timeline for the report to 30 days before they voted to approve the motion.

The supervisors spoke about Yonatan Aguilar, who was found dead in his Echo Park home last month, and how DCFS had conducted a handful of investigations of suspected abuse at his home. During these visits, a risk and safety assessment tool used by social workers determined that Aguilar fit into a “high risk” category for child maltreatment, but that he was not in danger of actual harm.

The tool used, called Structured Decision Making (SDM), is an assessment tool that all DCFS social workers use during investigations into child abuse and neglect. It prompts social workers to answer multiple choice questions that collectively categorize a child’s risk level as high, moderate or low and gauge whether a child is in danger. Because social workers using SDM did not determine that Aguilar was in danger, the supervisors want to look at SDM’s effectiveness and whether social workers would benefit from another tool, such as a predictive analytics tool wherein algorithms crunch big data to determine the likelihood that an outcome will occur.

Judge Michael Nash
Judge Michael Nash, director of the Los Angeles County Office of Child Protection.

Michael Nash, director of the county’s Office of Child Protection, said he is not sure if the Aguilar case calls into question the effectiveness of SDM. However, he wants to investigate SDM and its alternatives, he said.

“I do have some questions about the tool,” Nash said. “I have questions about the strengths and weaknesses of that tool. I have questions about how we train [social workers] on that tool here in Los Angeles County.”

“SDM was utilized in this case, and there’s no suggestion I’ve seen thus far that it was utilized incorrectly,” Nash added in a phone interview after the meeting. “There may be questions about the response to the assessment, but there’s no suggestion at this point that the assessment was inaccurate.”

During the board meeting, Ridley-Thomas said that the county needs to look further into technological advancements, such as tools that use predictive analytics.

In 2013, in an effort to help investigators make better decisions, DCFS contracted with SAS, the world’s largest private software firm, to test predictive analytics.

The experiment, dubbed AURA, or Approach to Understanding Risk Assessment, tracked child deaths, near fatalities and “critical incidents” in 2011 and 2012. Using a mix of data including, but not limited to, prior child abuse referrals, involvement with law enforcement, as well as mental health records and alcohol and substance abuse history, SAS statisticians created a risk score from one to 1,000, wherein high numbers demark high risk.

Ridley-Thomas said that the county has paid too little attention to the idea of using predictive analytics in child protection.

“We haven’t put enough energy into it, intellectually or otherwise,” Ridley-Thomas said.

The supervisors also spoke about the need for sufficient training and the importance of a social worker’s judgement in the risk assessment process.

“If the user who inputs the data isn’t adequately trained, what good is the system?” asked Supervisor Hilda Solis.

Nash said he wants to reach out to a wide variety of people to discuss SDM, including county employees, academics and nonprofit leaders.

“I think it’s an important issue and it’s one that I’ve already been looking at,” Nash said. “It’s just too bad that it comes within the context of a dead child.”

Note: An earlier version of this article stated that SDM did not determine Aguilar was in danger. Decisions not to take further action in the Aguilar case were based on decisions made by social workers at DCFS. It is not clear what results SDM produced regarding the boy’s safety and how those results were used.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Holden Slattery
About Holden Slattery 50 Articles
Holden is the distribution and engagement manager for Fostering Media Connections and a general assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change.

1 Comment

  1. Los Angeles County Department of Children and family services does not put child safety first, protecting your bosses job and your job is number one.

    When I was a social worker for Los Angeles county Department of children and family services on more than a few occasions while doing investigations of alleged child abuse, law-enforcement officers and myself found abused children concealed in closets, other rooms or in a location in the backyard, such as behind a fence. I will go into the home environment where I was doing the investigation and pick up on balance intention. If something was off no matter how stable and normal it seemed on the outside I would investigate further. Most of the time I supervisors would tell me to “hurry up, you have another referral.” I would not be rushed by my supervisor nor by law-enforcement. Of course one has to first trust one senses, gut and intuition, can’t do this if you’re always dealing with the anxiety of getting the job done because there’s always another referral and the paper work is always late even before you receive the case. So good assessment senses and acuity are not value is how fast you can complete the paperwork.

    But having dyslexia my ability was not appreciated from DCFS, that no children died on my watch that wasn’t the issue was the issue was how fast I could write and turn the reports in on time so I have to make my superiors look good. It is similar to what’s going on with Wells Fargo right now, they just want you to process work quickly and make your superiors look good and keep your county job.

    DCFS does not put children first, the entire culture of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and family services starting from the administration downwards heart, soul, mind and efforts is on covering your butt. It is a culture of anxiety, backstabbing and harassment. Most of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family services workers motto is, “Keep your good county Job.” Not child safety first. Their real guiding mantra is cover your Butt first. Child safety has very little to do with it for most. The social workers that do put children first get weeded out quickly, very quickly.

    For example if you are empathic and care about children, it does not matter. Such people do not last at DCFS, they seldom get promoted and very rarely become supervisors. In other words the workers that really care about children do not last long and move up. The workers that are detach, the ones that are good tools, that are good at paper work, such workers are the ones that our out of touch with their feelings, they do not turn their feelings off, they are not in touch with them in the first place, so not empathizing is second nature, such workers tune out their higher level brain functioning and focus on the corrupt status quo and getting the endless blizzard of paper work in on time, with all the paper work, as well as bureaucratic forms to fill out correctly one has to neglect the children, such are the character traits that move up in the ranks at DCFS. The DCFS administration and culture will cover up for such a worker, for such of a good and productive DCFS employee.

    Now if the child dies on you and you are one of the good and productive DCFS employees and you cover it up because you care about your job and your house payments more than you care about a minority child, or any child, and the facts, then you will get promoted. Most DCFS supervisors have at least covered up one child death before they became promoted. Find me the most paid DCFS employees and I will show you the most child death coverups. Moving up is determined by how well you cover up a child death due to DCFS failures. It is the complete opposite of caring for children, protecting children, putting children first and child safety. They will fire a social worker not because the child dies do to a DCFS failure but because the DCFS worker did not adequately cover up a needles death of a child.

    This is an abbreviated version of a longer article that I am working on. The emotional blindness that I mentioned in this article shows the DCS vulnerability, how most of the DCFS administration and too many of the social workers identify with the perpetrators more than with the victims. Many of them went through some sort of child-abuse themselves and unconsciously identify with the perpetrator; and a cover-up that went along with it, Hence, the reason why the the Los Angeles County Department of children and family services system keeps failing. This Is a system that’s in grave need of outside intervention.

Comments are closed.