Using Data to Improve Child Welfare Decision-Making.

Author:Dalton, Erin
Position:Locally speaking

In August 2016, the Allegheny County Department of Human Services (DHS) implemented the Allegheny Family Screening Tool (AFST), a predictive risk modeling tool designed to improve child welfare call screening decisions. The AFST was the result of a two-year process of exploration and community engagement about how existing data could be used to improve decision-making at the time of a child welfare referral.

When receiving a child abuse or neglect referral, call screeners (who receive approximately 15,000 calls each year) must make important decisions about whether to "screen in" and investigate the case or "screen out" and offer community services. These decisions often must be made with minimal information.

An analysis of prior cases found that 27 percent of our highest risk cases had been screened out, while 48 percent of the lowest risk cases had been screened in and investigated. The case was clear--a predictive risk model could provide additional information to help workers make these important decisions.

In 2014, after a competitive process, we selected a team from Auckland University of Technology, the University of Southern California, and the University of California-Irvine to develop a tool to leverage the more than one billion records contained in DHS's Data Warehouse. The result of this partnership is the AFST, an analytics tool that synthesizes data to predict the likelihood of future referrals and/or out-of-home placements over the next two years.

The AFST is designed to integrate and analyze hundreds of data elements--such as previous child welfare involvement or past criminal justice involvement--on each person added to a referral to generate an overall Family Screening Score that falls between 1 and 20. The higher the score, the greater the chance for a future event (e.g., re-referral, placement), according to the model. The score provides additional information to assist call screeners with determining whether or not the call should be screened in. The AFST does not replace clinical judgment, but provides additional support during the decisionmaking process.

"We recognized that such a tool could cause concern in the community, and we wanted to address that at the beginning," said Katie Arvay, an analyst in DHS's Office of Children, Youth and Families. "We held several community and stakeholder meetings to gather input during the exploration and development process...

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