Social Worker, and Part-Time Hacker, Builds Apps for Child Welfare

Social worker Ruby Guillen’s shift at the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), the largest child welfare agency in the U.S., starts at 4 p.m. and ends at 2:30 a.m.—except when serious incidents occur and keep her on the job even longer.

After the agency’s emergency hotline responders determine which reports of child maltreatment demand an immediate response, it is Guillen’s job to drive to families’ homes, knock on their doors and investigate for child abuse or neglect.

Since she started this job in 1995, Guillen has assessed the safety of 6,000 children in their homes, she estimates. She’s also encountered and responded to domestic violence, homicides, drug trafficking and sex trafficking.

“Everything that has to do with child welfare—I’ve done it all,” Guillen said in an interview.

Like all of the other case workers at DCFS, Guillen uses her knowledge and experience, along with the agency’s risk assessment tools and protocols, to decide how to keep children safe and improve their wellbeing—one child at a time.

Unlike many of her colleagues, Guillen has a passion for computer science and technology that she channels into creating mobile applications for child safety and wellbeing. Her aim is to use technology to start helping all the county’s vulnerable children, all at once.

Guillen fell in love with technology when she joined the U.S. Air Force in the 1980s. While working full-time for DCFS, she decided to get a degree in computer information systems, and after graduating in 2010, she kept taking online programming classes.

This year Guillen led a team of fellow techies to victory in two hackathons hosted by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Hackathons are events in which computer programmers and others involved in software and hardware development collaborate intensively on projects.

At her first hackathon, in February, Guillen’s team created an app to prevent and report child sex trafficking. At her second hackathon, in June, they created an anti-bullying app.

Guillen has another app that she created for foster care placement, and she is now finishing up her work on a fourth app for assessing risk of child abuse or neglect.

Social worker Ruby Guillen with the Hack for LA team
Social worker Ruby Guillen with the Hack for LA team.

None of these applications are in use yet. If Guillen and her team want to see their creations implemented, they have to beat out the tech giants that usually win government contracts.

“We’re up against big corporations. It’s very difficult for anyone unless you’re given the green light to participate,” Guillen said. “So I’m trying to figure that out. I love the hackathons because the hackathons allow anyone to come in and solve a problem.”

Assessing Risk for Child Maltreatment

Every time Guillen visits a home where child abuse or neglect is suspected, she assesses the risk to all children in the home using Structured Decision Making (SDM). This is a decision-making model based on actuarial science, which is also used to assess risk in the insurance and finance industries.

SDM is the most widely used risk assessment toolkit in the U.S. today, according to the Children’s Research Center, a division of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency–the agency that created SDM in the first place.

It contains a checklist that case workers fill out based on the interviews they conduct and observations they make while visiting a home. Then it classifies a family’s risk level as very high, high, moderate or low.

SDM is not without its critics. Some say it should be replaced with a more technologically advanced decision-making model, such as a predictive analytics model that crunches big data to assess risk.

The Los Angeles County Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection, tasked with reducing child deaths, recommended in 2013 that DCFS adopt a predictive analytics tool created by Eckerd, a private service provider in Florida.

A few years earlier, in 2008, DCFS had started looking into its own predictive analytics model called Approach to Understanding Risk Assessment (AURA). This program was created by SAS, a $3 billion company that develops business analytics software and services.

The county’s recently formed Office of Child Protection will have a stakeholder meeting on Wednesday, July 22 to discuss the uses and implications of data, risk modeling and analytics for child welfare. In the past, analytics have been mostly limited to the corporate world.

This is new territory for social service agencies and people have questions about how the technology works, and whether it could have negative consequences, such as privacy intrusions or racial profiling.

Guillen, interested in the ideas of others from the child welfare realm, said she plans to attend the meeting.

“I’m going to be listening,” she said.

Ruby’s Assessment

As she uses SDM in her investigations, Guillen sees its flaws firsthand.

With its yes or no approach, it does not differentiate between domestic violence involving threats with deadly weapons and verbal domestic disputes, or between a mother experiencing depression in the wake of her husband’s death and a mother suffering from schizophrenia who refuses medication, Guillen explained.

SDM also refrains from scoring the risks presented by secondary caretakers, such as relatives and the significant others of single parents, according to Guillen. It asks for information on the risks these people present, but does not make the answers part of the family’s risk score.

The county’s Children’s Special Investigation Unit reported in 2012 that SDM can be manipulated to justify pre-determined outcomes or avoid higher-level review.

During a visit to the University of Southern California in March, DCFS Director Phillip Browning said that when he became director of DCFS and was given a demonstration of SDM, he was disappointed.

“It’s a manual process. I was really very disappointed in the ability of a worker to manipulate that in any way they want to,” Browning said.

Guillen agrees with Browning.

“The tool itself is not on the level with today’s technology,” she said. “It’s not on a level with today’s algorithms and mathematical application formulas.”

When it comes to big data solutions to child safety that are being discussed in L.A. County, Guillen has some concerns.

She said she appreciates the value of big data, but that big data systems do not gather important information beneath the surface. Guillen wants to obtain the “granular data” underneath the big data.

“I’m more for people-centered technology,” Guillen said. “Let’s get the people what they need. If you want to determine risk you’re community’s going to tell you. There’s a huge amount of resources in our community and no one’s really tapping into it.”

Guillen said she also sees the need for a tool that takes into account cultural factors and the poverty index in different neighborhoods and regions.

“Things that are a threat in Beverly Hills may not be a threat in Watts, and things that are a threat in Watts may not be a threat in Beverly Hills, based on the resources available,” Guillen said. “It’s quite different, and you have to have a completely different set of eyes to understand what that means and how to create tools that are responsive to that particular environment.”

A Ruby is Rare

Guillen’s passion for social services and desire to help children stems partly from the pain she experienced while growing up in foster care.

“I know when I was in foster care, I saw a lot,” she said. “I had a foster sister who committed suicide.”

When she joined the Air Force, she worked on the flight line, checking parts of cargo planes to see if they were ready to fly. She used to talk to the pilots, and she was amazed by the technology they were using—how they could fly over Russia and take a clear picture of a carton of cigarettes in the street.

Guillen was a reservist with the Air Force when she began working for DCFS. She was struck by the contrast between the advanced technology of the military and the paper-based systems at DCFS.

Social worker Ruby Guillen became interested in technology during her time in the U.S. Air Force.
Social worker Ruby Guillen became interested in technology during her time in the U.S. Air Force.

“I was in two worlds: the tech world and the awesomeness of technology and this cumbersome paper-based process,” Guillen said. “And I loved how powerful, how effective, how quick technology was. And I’m like, how can I apply technology to social work?”

Working for DCFS is demanding, Guillen said, and many of her co-workers are too exhausted to do anything after a shift. But Guillen said her passion for developing technology gives her the “fuel” she needs to plan for hackathons and work on apps.

“I may sleep but then I’ll wake up because I have this incredible idea in my head,” Guillen said. “I’ll rush, jump out of bed and write it on my computer because I just don’t want to lose it.”

At tech industry events, Guillen is almost always the only person in attendance with a background in social work. At the DCFS emergency response command post, she is the only person developing technological solutions to the problems she faces while investigating child abuse.

“Even at the Department of Children and Family Services, if you go to my desk you’ll see pictures of Einstein on my walls. I have artwork in my home created by motherboards. I have keyboards as decorations,” Guillen said. “People look at me as kind of odd because I understand tech, and I really understand social services.”

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Holden Slattery
About Holden Slattery 51 Articles
Holden is the distribution and engagement manager for Fostering Media Connections and a general assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change.

6 Comments

  1. Ruby, I count it an honor to have worked with you on one of these projects. Bravo and congratulations for finally receiving the recognition you deserve!

  2. This is exactly what INorupt is doing (www.inorupt.com). Connecting social service issues to technology solutions. I am the founder and have the same background…I am a licensed clinical social worker with technology experience as well. Can I have Ruby’s contact information? I would love to join forces!

  3. Holden, thank you so much for introducing readers to this brilliant woman. A social worker, hacker and former foster child! If only we could clone her!

    • You’re welcome, Marie. It was a pleasure to hear an amazing story and be able to share it.

  4. Ruby is more than a knowledgeable advocate, she is also an extraordinary ambassador attempting to bridge system silos by leveraging her tech know-how to convene and guide development of strategic system partnerships! 211 LA applauds her tenacity and courage to wade through the red tape, lobbing tech solutions left and right as she tangles with one social issue after another. She’s a real life superhero!

  5. If more successful former foster children shared their story foster children might feel more hopeful. We need advocates who really know the system. Congratulations Ruby.

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