Fatality Commission’s Love for Predictive Analytics is Bad News for Vulnerable Children

A couple of months ago, I was updating one of the most popular pages on the NCCPR website. It’s called The Case Against CASA.  It’s all about how the most sacred cow in child welfare, the Court-Appointed Special Advocates program, harms the children it is meant to help.

Part of the updating process involved checking the site of a particular CASA program to see if some offensive language was still there. It was.

But ever since then, I’ve been followed all over the internet by “targeted” ads urging me to become a CASA – for that very program.

No harm was done, of course. In fact, if this program wasted a tiny portion of its ad budget on me, that’s a little less money to fund the well-meaning but harmful activities of an especially-biased CASA program.

But use that same kind of “predictive analytics” to start deciding when to tear apart a family and you’re into much more dangerous territory, the kind of territory explored in the dystopian science fiction film Minority Report, in which people are arrested and jailed based on the predictions of three psychics in a bathtub.

Unfortunately, if its draft recommendations are any indication, a federal advisory group called the “Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities” has fallen head-over-heels in love with predictive analytics.

They initially used it to justify what some commissioners are calling a “surge,” in which states would use multi-disciplinary teams to reopen huge numbers of cases – but only cases in which children were allowed to remain in their own homes.

There would be no checking on children in foster care to see if they really need to be there. (Other commissioners, with no sense of irony, are referring to this idea as an “accelerant.” The commission PR staff has been instructed to find something more palatable.)

And how would “multi-disciplinary teams” decide where to intrude, and, maybe take away the kids? Just ask the psychics – sorry, the software.

The only system I know of to undertake the sort of “surge” being discussed by the commission is Connecticut, which conducted re-investigations in 1995 in the wake of a high-profile death of a child “known to the system.”

Removals of children skyrocketed – but workers had even less time to find children in real danger, so child abuse deaths actually increased. Presumably, the commission thinks the use of predictive analytics somehow would solve the problems caused by the surge in Connecticut.

The commissioners, and every other fan of predictive analytics, point to Tampa where, after what newspapers love to call a “spate” of child abuse deaths – nine over four years – the state replaced the private agency in charge of the region’s child welfare, and the new agency adopted predictive analytics.

So far, there haven’t been any more child abuse deaths.  But there are several problems with claiming cause-and-effect:

  • Nobody ever says how many child abuse deaths there were before the “spate” – presumably not many, or the heads would have rolled sooner.
  • Determining whether a death is caused by child abuse or, especially, neglect is highly subjective, particularly in Florida where definitions have fluctuated wildly over the past decade.
  • The new software was accompanied by a lot of new caseworkers and, at the time, agency leadership that did not allow a foster-care panic – a huge surge in removals – so the workers had time to do their jobs.  (There’s been a panic since, so we’ll see how long the record lasts.)
  • And it all could be random chance.

A story in The Chronicle acknowledges that “given the rarity of these events, a lapse in child deaths could be as much anomaly as anything else.”  Indeed, the director of quality assurance for the “lead agency” handling child welfare in Tampa told The Chronicle: “I never try to claim causality.”

No one else should either.

But what the Commission does is even worse.  At least the algorithms are, in theory, tailored to individual circumstances (though there’s at least one CASA program that may want to question that before buying any more internet ads). The Commission draft recommendations involve wholesale changes in law, changes that would apply to millions of Americans, based on wild extrapolations from studies of individual risk factors.

The latest version of the surge/accelerant calls for demanding that states look at every child abuse death for the past five years, try to find common risk factors, and then reopen any case where even one such risk factor may be present.

The flaw in the logic is one for which we all should be grateful. The chances of any parent killing a child are infinitesimal. The chances of a parent with a given “risk factor” killing a child are ever-so-slightly less infinitesimal.

That’s why when ChildTrends published its list of Top Five Myths About Child Maltreatment, #1 was: “We can predict which children will be maltreated based on risk factors.”

The Commission takes the concept of “predictive analytics,” a fad that is questionable in itself, and perverts it. The result is recommendations like the “surge/accelerant,” another recommendation that would prohibit child protective hotlines from screening out any call involving a child under age 5, and another one to bar screening out any case in which someone calls more than once, and on and on.

The hotline recommendations alone are likely to increase the number of cases investigated every year by 44 percent. The Commission may also recommend that Congress divert already scarce federal funds for prevention and family preservation in order to pay for it.

It all adds up to a regime of domestic spying that would make the NSA blush. And even if you’re not fazed by the enormous harm inflicted on children by needless investigations and needless foster care, consider what a 44 percent increase in caseloads would do to the quality of investigations.  Workers would have far less time for any case – and more children in real danger would be missed.

All because the Commission seems to be responding to Minority Report the way Rick Santorum would respond if he read The Handmaid’s Tale – seeing it as a blueprint instead of a warning.

Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection ReformNCCPR’s full response to the Commission, entitled “Minority Report,” is available here.  

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1 Comment

  1. I have a solution for reform that fits in with your papers. How do I contact you? I tried the phone number and email address. No response. That is, the contact for the NCCPR.

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