Why Structure Decisions in Child Welfare?

For over 100 years the nonprofit National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) has been committed to protecting the safety and well-being of children. We believe in the power of research and evidence to help children and families. We also believe in the importance of equity, and we work to reduce racial disparities in social service systems.

Child protection workers have a challenging job. They make vital decisions every day, often based on limited information gathered in difficult circumstances. Education, ongoing training, and experience are essential. However, a wealth of research has shown that intuition isn’t the best guide for complex decisions. Every one of us—regardless of how experienced, insightful, or good-hearted—is vulnerable to errors in decision-making and to cognitive biases.

Research also has demonstrated that when decision makers know exactly what information to consider (and what to ignore), they do better. Children and families experience treatment that is more equitable and more consistent.

This is why NCCD created the Structured Decision Making® (SDM) model.

Based on decades of research and practice, the SDM® model provides a framework for focusing on key information at each child welfare decision point:

  • At the initial phone call: Should we screen this case in and respond? How quickly?
  • At first contact: Is the child in any immediate, serious danger? Can she safely stay in the home?
  • When concluding an initial investigation or assessment: Would this family benefit from intensive, ongoing intervention?
  • If building a long-term plan: What are the most important things for this family to work on?
  • If a child has been removed: Can this child be safely returned home, or should alternative permanency become the goal?
  • When getting ready to end CPS involvement: If we close the case, will the child remain safe?

The SDM model provides an evidence-based framework for each of these decision points. Ensuring that workers collect and evaluate the same information in the same way reduces the range of what may happen to a given family based on which worker happens to be on duty that day, and supports equity for all families. We believe children and families deserve that.


How Research Helps Determine Risk Factors

One of the cornerstones of the SDM system is the risk assessment. The SDM risk assessment was created through the use of powerful research methodology called actuarial science. Actuarial risk assessments in child welfare are created by sampling thousands of cases, and examining and analyzing hundreds of potential risk factors. Researchers are then able to determine which factors, and which combination of factors, will provide child protection workers with the information they need most.

The SDM risk assessment includes only those items that have the strongest statistical relationship to a future occurrence of abuse/neglect. Based on these statistical relationships, the assessment classifies the family by likelihood of repeat maltreatment.

The risk level provides a recommendation, which the worker then takes action on. Workers, along with their supervisors, also have the option to recommend a different action if they think it necessary. While tools help people make better decisions, people make the final decision.


The Potential and Limitations of Predictive Analytics in Child Welfare

There are various attempts emerging from the technology sector to apply similar methods to answer a variety of child welfare questions. These efforts fall under the broad heading of “predictive analytics” and essentially use the same strategy that the SDM model uses.

There is tremendous enthusiasm currently for making use of use of these “big data” approaches and we share in this enthusiasm. There needs to be equal caution, however.

The conversation around these tools has been about which children may have an increased likelihood of death or serious injury. While it is of course critical to prevent serious injuries and fatalities, this should not be the only aim of child protection. CPS agencies also must work to end child abuse and neglect, even when it does not result in serious or fatal injury. And while this kind of abuse and neglect rarely makes the headlines—or the calls for accountability of our government leaders—it is far more common and affects many more children.

Most important, the children and families touched by child protection systems deserve our best decisions. NCCD is committed to decision-making approaches that are proven by research and tested in the field with care and consideration for utility, equity, reliability, and validity.

The SDM model has been tested repeatedly on all of these measures. It has proven equitable across racial and ethnic groups. It is accurate and valid. It is reliable and consistent across workers, locations, and times. It has been used to improve practice and outcomes.

These standards must apply to any tool being developed and used in the child protection field. Any jurisdiction should be able to ask these questions of their chosen model.

Predictive analytics has the potential to be an additional asset to how child protection decisions get made, and any new tools have an obligation—an obligation to the families and children we serve—to clearly demonstrate their equity, reliability, validity, and utility.


Children and Families Deserve to Have Evidence and Good Practice on Their Side

No one has a crystal ball or a silver bullet in child protection, and even the best decision-support tools are not perfect. This is why NCCD continues to lead advancements in tool design. Even the best tool can be manipulated if a user is intent on doing so and works with no effective oversight. Still, nothing else—not professional judgment alone, not alternative assessments, and not predictive analytics—has demonstrated superior decision-making performance compared to SDM.

The field needs accurate information. The children and families served by child welfare agencies deserve to have a workforce that makes decisions about their futures in ways that ensure greater objectivity, fairness, and equity for all.

Kathy Park is the chief executive officer of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) and NCCD Children’s Research Center.  

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