CAN BIG DATA HELP SAVE ABUSED KIDS? THE QUEST TO FIX OUR MESSY, MEDDLESOME FOSTER CARE BUREAUCRACIES.

Author:Riley, Naomi Schaefer
Position::Essay
 
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IT HAS BEEN a little over a year since the death of 6-year-old Zymere Perkins.

The boy, who died in Harlem at the hands of his mother's boyfriend, had been smacked as many as 20 times in a row in front of witnesses, beaten with a belt, placed under cold showers, and denied food as a punishment. In addition to bruises and broken bones, he was missing all of his front teeth. But apparently all his mother had to do was tell the city social workers that he had fallen--down the stairs, off a scooter, whatever--and they would close the case.

According to a report released by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services in December 2016, 10 children died in the 12 weeks before Perkins, despite each being the subject of at least four abuse or maltreatment complaints.

The New York City Administration for Children's Services (ACS) has since undergone an overhaul, installing a new commissioner and instituting greater measures of accountability for its employees. But to anyone who has been keeping track of such cases, the outrage and the plans for reform will sound sadly familiar.

Ten years before Zymere Perkins, there was Nixzmary Brown, a 7-year-old girl from the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn who was tortured and murdered by her stepfather. In that case too ACS had been made aware of her situation at least twice before the fatal beating. Her school had reported her absent for weeks at a time. Neighbors said she sustained unexplained injuries, including a black eye, and that she seemed undernourished--weighing less than 45 pounds at the time of her death.

In the wake of that case, Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the ACS to reopen numerous files. New York state legislators stiffened penalties to allow parents in such cases to be charged with first-degree murder. Efforts to publicize the city's child abuse hotline were expanded.

Most metropolitan child welfare bureaucracies have been through such a process at least once in the past two decades. From Gabriel Fernandez, the 8-year-old boy killed by his mother and her boyfriend in Los Angeles in 2013, to Danieal Kelly, the cerebral palsy-stricken girl who died in 2006 at age 14 after almost a decade of investigations by Philadelphia case workers into her mother's failure to feed or bathe her, to 2-year-old Tariji Gordon of Sanford, Florida, who had been sent back to live with her mother after her twin brother suffocated, only to be found in 2014 dead and buried in a suitcase, there is always a shocking case that leads to a public outcry and then reform.

For too long, we've been asking undertrained social workers to make high-stakes decisions about children and families based on patchy data and gut intuition.

But whether it's pumping more money into the system or simply installing a no-nonsense leader at the top, few of these changes seem to make a difference. All too soon, things go back to the way they were.

In Out of Harm's Way (Oxford University Press), published last year to much less fanfare than it deserved, sociologist Richard Gelles offers a devastating account of how little effect bureaucratic reforms usually have. More money, more staff, more training, more lawsuits brought against child protective services (CPS), or the ever-popular convening of more "blueribbon" committees--nothing has really moved the needle on protecting children in recent years. In some cases, reform amounts to little more than changing the name of the agency.

Some 3 million children are the subject of maltreatment investigations each year, 700,000 of which are substantiated. There are about 2,500 child fatalities due to abuse or neglect by a parent or caregiver in the U.S. annually, and about half of those are cases child welfare agencies were aware of beforehand. "If CPS agencies cannot protect the children they already know to be at risk," Gelles asks in his book, "whom can they protect?"

For too long, we've been asking undertrained social workers to make high-stakes decisions about children and families based on patchy data and gut intuition. The result is a system riddled with the biases, inattention, bad incentives, error, and malice that plague all human endeavors, but especially massive government bureaucracies. Every day, some kids are forcibly taken from their parents for the wrong reasons while others are left to suffer despite copious warning signs. The children the system is failing are disproportionately poor and members of racial minority groups. In many cases, their families have been devastated by generations of family breakdown, unemployment, drug abuse, and crime. But these cannot be excuses for leaving their fates to a system with such deep and abiding flaws.

Conservatives have too often thrown up their hands, arguing that government cannot replace the family and there is not much to be done until the institution of marriage is repaired. Liberals, meanwhile, have suggested that these problems can't be fixed until we end poverty and racism. In the meantime, bureaucrats are bumbling into the lives of too many families just trying to do their best while leaving some of the most vulnerable children in society unprotected.

We can do better.

2

GELLES IS A Boston native, and Red Sox paraphernalia line the shelves and windowsills of his office at the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. He also seems to have a thing for old-fashioned typewriters, which must look like ancient artifacts to his students. But his work is forward-looking, not nostalgic. Gelles is one of the biggest boosters of predictive analytics in the child welfare field.

Predictive analytics refers to the use of historical data to forecast the likelihood of future events. Thanks to powerful computers, statisticians in recent years have been able to develop models for understanding, for instance, the probability that a criminal out on parole might commit a crime again. In the area of child welfare in particular, proponents are enthusiastic about the prospect of getting better information about children at risk. There is so much we don't, and can't, know about what goes on inside of families that child welfare workers are largely flying blind. But big data has the potential to tell the likelihood that a child will be subject to neglect, abuse--or worse.

There are serious concerns about the collection and use of these data among civil libertarians. Studies have suggested that the models used to forecast criminal behavior overpredict crime by blacks and Latinos. There are also questions about what kinds of data are being collected and how. And then there are researchers who question the accuracy of such models altogether. But at least in the current pilot programs, there is no new intrusion into people's lives. The goal is to do a better job of crunching the numbers that are already being collected--by the reporters of abuse or by welfare agencies and school systems. In this field predictive analytics are being used to determine how urgently problems should be investigated and how resources like preventive services are allocated. For people who study the tragic details every day of the kids who fall through the cracks, this new method is the most dramatic development in decades.

It's easy to see how spending so much time reading about these cases--let alone working directly with victims of the worst sorts of abuse--could turn someone hypervigilant. But while Gelles is a self-described "safety hawk" when it comes to protecting kids, he isn't some Law & Order: Special Victims Unit hysteric who sees predators lurking around every corner. He simply believes that if social workers want to get better at their jobs, they should study math and statistics.

"There are patterns, and if you get enough data and you run it through enough iterations, you will find the pattern in what appears to be chaos," he says. This formulation will be familiar to those who have read Moneyball, journalist Michael Lewis' account of how big data allowed the Oakland Athletics baseball club to sign better players for less money and win championships against much wealthier teams.

In fact, at the beginning of his 2016 book The Undoing Project (Norton), Lewis lightly mocks all the other uses people have found for predictive analytics in the years since Moneyball was published. "In the past decade or so, a lot of people have taken the Oakland As as their role model and set out to use better data and better analysis of those data to find market inefficiencies," he writes. "I've read articles about Moneyball for Education, Moneyball for Movie Studios, Moneyball for Medicare, Money-ball for Golf, Moneyball for Farming, Moneyball for Book Publishing (!), Moneyball for Presidential Campaigns, Moneyball for Government, Moneyball for Bankers, and so on."

And maybe we have overinvested in the promise of big data. In an October article in Slate, Will Oremus criticized our society's "fetishization" of these efforts...

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