As a former child protection worker, I know that the death of a child is the worst possible outcome, the one that we all fear. Words can’t express the sorrow we feel when a child dies. A young life lost, especially due to neglect or abuse, leaves us all wondering what we could have done to prevent it.
Last month in Los Angeles County, that fear became a reality. The child welfare system failed 11-year-old Yonatan Aguilar, who was found dead in his family home. Child protection staff had many previous contacts with the family. There were multiple warnings and red flags of neglect and abuse. So what went wrong?
The loss of this child is a clear failure. A failure to take multiple reports seriously. A failure to serve a family that was clearly in need.
The Structured Decision Making (SDM) risk assessment repeatedly indicated that Yonatan was at high risk of future abuse and neglect, but no case was ever opened. This is no evidence for a failure or weakness of the SDM system. To the contrary, it is clear evidence of its strength. The risk level tells you the likelihood of the child returning to the attention of the child protection system, and in this case, the child did return, and in the worst way imaginable. Focusing our inquiry on the tool is dodging the real problem.
What I do see evidence for is an urgent need to examine child protection policy and practice. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors needs to find out why the high risk level was repeatedly dismissed. The board needs to understand whether this is happening in other cases. Children in Los Angeles deserve this.
The most crucial issues to examine go beyond the SDM system to fundamental organizational and systemic functioning. Supervisors need to ask: is the Department of Children and Family Services leadership establishing a culture that values and respects the life of every child? Are they supportive of using research in child protection to ensure that all evidence-based tools are used to their full potential? Are workers and supervisors on the front lines getting the training and coaching they need to succeed?
Los Angeles County has already demonstrated its commitment to improving child protection in several ways. It convened the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection and followed that body’s recommendation to create an Office of Child Protection. With the motion passed by the Board of Supervisors this week, the stage is set for a potentially transformative look at child protection practice. This is an opportunity we should all welcome.
In the aftermath of Yonatan’s death, it is easy to want an instant answer to these difficult questions.
However, predictive analytics cannot be upheld as that remedy. The Office of Child Protection’s examination must bring to the public an educated understanding of this concept.
A false dichotomy dominates the field between the SDM system and predictive analytics experiments like AURA, misinforming the field and policymakers. AURA and the SDM system are not competitors. The developers of AURA themselves have said that AURA should not be a replacement for the SDM system, as SDM data strengthen AURA’s predictive capacity.
There is never going to be an easy solution to the hard work of child protection. There is no new “off-the-shelf” invention that can guarantee there will never again be a loss like that of Yonatan Aguilar.
Child protection systems and their workers deserve to have the best tools: tools that combine research and best practices and that support equitable, valid decision making. They also need ongoing training, accountability, and an organizational culture that embraces child protection research and best practices. We look forward to working with the Department of Children and Family Services to ensure that all of these needs are being met.
In Los Angeles County, we can never stop striving to improve our tools and our practice in any way possible to serve and protect children and their families. It will take determination, commitment, and engagement from all of us: department leaders, frontline workers, SDM specialists and other research experts, judges, the Board of Supervisors, the Office of Child Protection, and the many families and passionate advocates who care about the welfare of children.
Kathy Park is the chief executive of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD). The NCCD Children’s Research Center is the developer of the Structured Decision Making system for child protection. NCCD works in partnership with state and local social services agencies across the United States and internationally to transform policies and practices in child welfare, juvenile justice, and adult protective services systems through research-based and data-driven approaches to decision making.