Predictive Analytics: The Stop-and-Frisk of Child Welfare

Like many of my fellow liberals, I get a lot of my news from the most reliable sources: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and, of course, The Daily Show.

Want to see a liberal talk like Newt Gingrich? Just whisper the words “child abuse” in his ear. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

Last week, The Daily Show did a superb analysis of “stop-and-frisk” – the policing tactic pioneered in New York City under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and struck down by a judge who branded it “indirect racial profiling.”

In the clip below, Trevor Noah goes through the problems with stop-and-frisk one after the other:

  • The rate of false positives – innocent people stopped and frisked – is staggering.
  • Though the name suggests a gentle, benign process, the reality is a deeply frightening, humiliating experience to those who must undergo it.
  • It is racially biased.
  • Defenders say it’s not biased, it’s based on applying a series of risk factors said to be associated with criminal behavior.
  • It backfires by sowing so much fear and distrust in poor communities of color that it undermines law enforcement and compromises safety.

But backers of stop-and-frisk – overwhelmingly white and middle class –  say they know better than people who actually live in communities of color. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich put it this way:

You run into liberals who would rather see people killed than have the kind of aggressive policing … And a lot of the people whose lives were saved because of policing in neighborhoods that needed it the most, were minority Americans.

But what else would you expect from right-wing Republicans like Gingrich, or Giuliani or Donald Trump himself? Liberals would never tolerate such a harmful, racially biased intrusion on civil liberties.

Or would they?

As you watch the clip, try this: Whenever Trevor Noah says “crime” or “criminal” substitute “child abuse” or “child abuser.”  And whenever he says stop-and-frisk, substitute child welfare’s version of stop-and-frisk, that much-hyped approach in which in which a computer uses demographic and other information to tell caseworkers which parents supposedly are a danger to their children: predictive analytics.

As with stop-and-frisk, predictive analytics puts a pseudo-scientific veneer on indirect racial profiling.  ProPublica proved it. And as with stop-and-frisk, predictive analytics leads to an enormous number of false positives, guaranteeing that many more innocent families will be swept into the system, and their children needlessly consigned to foster care, with all of the harm  that often follows.

Indeed, if anything the collateral damage of predictive analytics can be worse than stop-and-frisk. With stop-and-frisk, a child may see his father thrown up against a wall and roughed up, but at least when it’s over the child still will have his father.

Yes, there are some in the research community and elsewhere who are making a good-faith effort to wring the racial bias out of predictive analytics algorithms, or otherwise curb their misuse. But that will last only until the first news story about the death of a child “known to the system” that supposedly could have been prevented if only the child welfare agency had used all the data it had – essentially the Gingrich argument.

Unfortunately, once again too many on the left are willing to abandon everything they claim to believe in as soon as someone whispers the words “child abuse” in their ears. That never turns out well for children.

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Richard Wexler
About Richard Wexler 50 Articles
Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, His interest in child welfare grew out of 19 years of work as a reporter for newspapers, public radio and public television. During that time, he won more than two dozen awards, many of them for stories about child abuse and foster care. He is the author of Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse (Prometheus Books: 1990, 1995).

1 Comment

  1. This is why so many times adults who were in foster care have their children #taken immediately for an anonymous tip that could very likely be false (false reports are rarely prosecuted).

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