Tuesday, July 26, 2016

New columns about racial bias in "predictive analytics" and the so-called Family First Act

ProPublica has done some outstanding reporting on racial bias in the use of algorithms - "predictive analytics" - in criminal justice.  Things may be even worse in child welfare

Read our column here

Although I oppose the so-called "Family First Act" which would make small changes in how the federal government pays for child welfare services, some of the arguments against the bill are so disingenuous that they tempt me to change my mind.

This column explains why

Monday, July 25, 2016

ProPublica exposes racial bias in predictive analytics

A recent story from the nonprofit in-depth journalism site ProPublica quotes a warning issued in 2014 by then-Attorney General Eric Holder to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. His warning concerned a fad spreading through the criminal justice system. Said Holder:

Although these measures were created with the best of intentions, I am concerned that they inadvertently undermine our efforts to ensure individualized and equal justice. They may exacerbate unwarranted and unjust disparities that are already far too common in our criminal justice system and in our society.

The fad that so concerned Holder is, of course, predictive analytics; the same fad spreading through child welfare.
Now, ProPublica has found that Holder was right.
ProPublica looked at 7,000 cases in Broward County, Fla., which uses a secret algorithm created by a for-profit company to assign risk scores to people arrested in that county, much as Los Angeles County plans to use a secret algorithm from a for-profit company in its child abuse investigations.
According to the story, when it came to predicting violent crime, the algorithm did a lousy job in general – four times out of five, people the algorithm said would commit a violent crime within two years did not.
In addition, according to the story:
The formula was particularly likely to falsely flag black defendants as future criminals, wrongly labeling them this way at almost twice the rate as white defendants.
 White defendants were mislabeled as low risk more often than black defendants.

The company that came up with the algorithm disputes the findings, saying its own analysis of the data found no racial disparities.

Poverty is equated with risk

Since the algorithm itself is secret, we can’t be sure why the results came out racially biased.
But Prof. Sonja Starr of the University of Michigan Law School has written that the factors used to create these sorts of algorithms typically include “unemployment, marital status, age, education, finances, neighborhood, and family background, including family members’ criminal history.”

Or as Prof. Starr put it to Bloomberg Technology: “Every mark of poverty serves as a risk factor.”
Similarly, the algorithm LosAngeles plans to use for child abuse investigations includes risk factors such as whether the child has been taken often to an emergency room or whether the child often changes schools, both factors closely correlated with poverty.  Perhaps that helps explain why, when tested, the Los Angeles model apparently produced false positives a staggering 95 percent of the time.

There is a similar problem when it comes to the use of “criminal history.”
As The Marshall Project and the website FiveThirtyEight explain:

Heavy policing in some neighborhoods … makes low-income and nonwhite residents more likely to be arrested, whether or not they’ve committed more or worse crimes. … Even using convictions is potentially problematic; blacks are more likely than whites to be convicted of marijuana possession, for example, even though they use the drug at rates equivalent to whites.

The same, of course, is true when it comes to “reports” alleging child abuse – some communities are much more heavily “policed” by child protective services. If anything, broad, vague definitions of “neglect” that equate neglect with poverty itself make the problem even worse in child welfare. And, of course, the problem is compounded when those most loudly beating the drum for predictive analytics don’teven understand what such reports really mean.

Predictive analytics as computerized racial profiling

The parallels to child welfare don’t end there.
§  In criminal justice, the use of predictive analytics is far outrunning objective evaluation. ProPublica found that evaluations were rare and often done by the people who developed the software. ProPublica had to do its own test for racial bias because, it seems, no one else has bothered.
§  Predictive analytics originally was sold in criminal justice as a benevolent intervention – meant to help agencies custom tailor rehabilitation and supportive services to the needs of high-risk defendants and reduce incarceration.

But it’s quickly metastasizing into use at all stages of the criminal justice projects, including, most ominously, sentencing.
So just as predictive analytics puts black defendants at greater risk of prolonged sentences, predictive analytics in child welfare puts black children at greater risk of being sentenced to needless foster care – with all of the attendant harms in terms of abuse in foster care itself and other rotten outcomes.

But wouldn’t I consider it OK to just use predictive analytics for “prevention”? asks Daniel Heimpel, publisher of the Chronicle of Social Change, (the Fox News of child welfare). The criminal justice experience makes clear that can’t be done, and there is no need. Instead of targeting individuals, you can simply bring genuine, voluntary help to poor neighborhoods, giving you plenty of bang for limited bucks, while limiting the risk of what amounts to computerized racial profiling.

Monday, July 18, 2016

How John Burton and Trent Rhorer almost got me to support the Family First Act

Last month I wrote about why I oppose the so-called Family First Prevention Services Act: It sets up prevention to fail and it actually entrenches institutionalization.

But I have to admit, every time I read columns opposing the bill like the one from John Burton and Trent Rhorer, I’m tempted to change my mind.

Like other defenders of institutionalization, Burton and Rhorer say the bill goes too far. But you know you’ve got a problem making a case when even your own extreme, aberrational horror story doesn’t support it.
They cite the case of Melissa, sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend, placed with an aunt but then coerced into child sex trafficking by an older man. After being raped every day for four months, Melissa escapes.
She is placed in an institution that, Burton and Rhorer suggest, is both the only alternative and something that would be impossible if the Family First Act becomes law.
Neither claim is true.
Burton and Rhorer write that “Melissa’s trauma likely would not meet the medical definition required in the legislation” for institutionalization. In other words, they’re claiming Melissa did not emerge from her ordeal with “serious emotional or behavioral disorders or disturbances” – that’s the definition.  If, by some miracle, that’s true, then she certainly doesn’t need to be institutionalized.
More important, in their very next paragraph, Burton and Rhorer contradict the claim that the institution was the only alternative.  They write:
Our statewide reform includes a comprehensive, team-based child assessment and expanded supportive services for caregivers, such as Melissa’s aunt. With these services, Melissa could have likely continued to live with her aunt and prevented a tragic chapter in her young life. [Emphasis added].

The Family First Act would not prohibit California from providing such services. Existing law doesn’t prohibit California from providing them either. California simply has to pay for it.  But given how much cheaper such support is than an institution, even without federal help this kind of assistance almost certainly still would have been less expensive for California.
And nothing in the Family First Act prevents California’s current plan to provide “expanded supportive services for caregivers…” so clearly there will be no need for institutionalization the next time a case such as Melissa’s arises.
Thank you, John Burton and Trent Rhorer, for providing a perfect illustration of how institutionalization is misused and overused, and why the federal government should stop funding it.

Giving up on families

Their example also illustrates how mediocre child welfare agencies – like Rhorer’s, which takes away children at a rate 50 percent above the California average – give up on families much too soon. They write that after Melissa escaped, “with the stigma of sexual exploitation hanging over her, her aunt would not take her back” – so she had to be institutionalized.

I’d like to hear the aunt’s side of that story. I’ll bet it has a lot more to do with the child welfare agency not offering her the support she needed to care for a severely traumatized niece. Watch Karl Dennis, father of wraparound services, illustrate the right way to deal with a reluctant family in a similar situation:
Burton and Rhorer also write that:
California’s approach also permits the temporary use of a group home to ensure Melissa’s safety and start her on the path to recovery, something that is not permitted in the federal legislation.
 There are several problems with this:

§  The Family First Act also permits this – unfortunately – for up to two weeks.
§  After those two weeks, it’s still permitted; state and/or local governments just have to pick up the tab.
§  Most important, parking young people in institutions does nothing for the young people; it just enriches the institutions.

So, with thousands upon thousands of cases to choose from, Burton and Rhorer could not find even one that actually justifies institutionalization but would not be permitted under the Family First Act.
Why, then, am I still on the same side as these guys? Precisely because young people like Melissa, and many more children whose cases are vastly less serious, still could be institutionalized under the Family First Act, and the status of such institutionalization would be sanctified in federal law. And because the “prevention” funding, while properly targeted toward cases of imminent risk, offers mostly the wrong kinds of help and sets absurd criteria for which programs qualify for reimbursement.
And please, spare us all the Goldilocks defense; the one that goes, if some people think the law is too tough and other people think it’s not tough enough, it must be juuuuuuuuust right.

No. The fact that some in the foster care industrial complex have the gall to claim this law is too tough just shows how spoiled they’ve gotten after all those years getting to eat all the porridge.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Closings at Maryville are cause for celebration

In May, I wrote about how 60 Minutes, the venerable CBS newsmagazine program, got suckered by Maryville, an even more venerable orphanage in Illinois – citing it as evidence that Newt Gingrich was on to something when he suggested institutionalizing poor people’s children.

Perhaps that’s understandable. After all, it would be another seven years before the facts about rampant abuse at Maryville would become public.
Less understandable is why anyone would mourn the decision by Maryville to finally get out of the orphanage business more than a decade after the horrors were exposed and Maryville was forced to clean up its act. Yet Marie Cohen did just that in June. So it’s worth looking back in more detail at exactly what happened at the institution Cohen chose to lionize.

An institution “up for grabs”

In 2002, the Chicago Sun-Times got hold of government reports calling Maryville’s main campus “dangerous” and in “a state of crisis.” After reviewing hundreds of documents, the newspaper concluded that Maryville was plagued with “rampant violence” and “the place is often up for grabs, with staff struggling to handle suicide attempts, sex abuse, drug use, fights and vandalism.”

In 2001 alone, police were called to Maryville’s main campus more than 900 times.  These are some of the reasons why, according to the Sun Times:

§  At least 40 girls and boys were involved in what police called a “mob action” in May. One girl had a knife. Others were wielding fire extinguishers, brooms and metal-buckled belts. Three police departments responded.
§  A 7-year-old boy in a unit for sexually aggressive kids was reported to have been sodomized by another boy in June.
§  Five kids, ages 11 to 16, attacked a 35-year-old male staff member in November. They “dragged [him] outside and proceeded to strike him with closed fists and kicked him all about his body,”… police reported.
§  An employee supervising a group home in June where two girls were out of control called for help and was told, “Lock yourself in the office and let the girls do what they will.”
§  A 14-year-old girl hanged herself in a bathroom shower in February.
§  Two others, a 9-year-old boy and 15-year-old girl, tried to kill themselves within a week’s time in July.

And while Cohen, as is her habit, cites a page maintained by the institution itself to prove how great the institution is, the youth who came to a Chicago City Council meeting in 2003 told a different story to Medill News Service:

“It is very unsafe,” said Ramissa Maat, 16, who said she lived at Maryville from age 10 to 13. “There have been numerous incidents where students have been raped by staff members and other students. My friend committed suicide because she couldn’t handle the stress of living there.”

 Freddie Cavin, 18, who said he lived at Maryville from 1998 to 2002, said a staff member hit his friend over the head with a garbage can.

Maryville staff quit in droves

As for those wonderful staff Cohen loves to rave about when writing about institutions, people who, because they work at an institution, somehow are magically better than a “loveless foster family”: They were paid next to nothing (despite Maryville’s huge endowment, courtesy of those private donors Cohen mentions), had little training or experience, and 80 of them quit or were fired in the first seven-and-a-half months of 2003 alone.

Eventually, Maryville’s longtime director, Father John Smyth, was ousted (though the statue of himself he commissioned remains at the entrance) and the state pulled all “state wards” out of the place – returning a relatively small number in 2007.

But now, reform-minded leadership at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has decided that there are better ways to spend the huge amount of money it costs to institutionalize a child. So they decided to pay institutions less. Rather than dip further into its own funds, Maryville decided to stop institutionalizing children and, to its credit, turn its attention to better alternatives.
Of course, the apologists for institutionalization would say it’s still fine to warehouse children at places like Maryville because the problems there are in the past.  After 900 police calls, rapes, suicides and a riot, everything’s calmed down.
There are three problems with that:
§  Maryville’s reforms were largely the result of making institutionalization a much smaller part of what it does, even before the recent announcement. They now put far more emphasis on family preservation.
§  Even when institutions are not hellholes, institutions still don’t work.

§  The cycle of abuse, reform and abuse again is never-ending. One year, the expose involves Maryville, another year it’s institutions in Georgia, another year California.

And there’s one more cause for concern: The Maryville expose came before the dramatic cuts at newspapers across the country. The next time a famous institution turns into a hellhole, there may be no reporters around to let us know.

Friday, July 8, 2016

New columns on the latest CASA scandal and on child welfare finance legislation

There's another scandal at a program affiliated with the most sacred cow in child welfare, Court-Appointed Special Advocates.  No one should be surprised.  Bias is built into the CASA model.

Read about it here.

And here's my analysis of proposed child welfare finance reform legislation:

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

#CASAsoWhite: Latest CASA scandal should be no surprise: Bias is built into the model

Anita Farris, a superior court judge in Snohomish County, Wash., says, “I’ve only used the ‘P word’ once in 23 years on this bench, and it applies in this situation.”

That’s P as in perjury.

KING-TV in Seattle
 reports the alleged perjurer is Cynthia Bemis, a “volunteer guardian-ad-litem” in child maltreatment cases. Most states use a different term: Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA).

The program Bemis volunteers for lists itself as “accredited by the National CASA Association and … an associated member of Washington State CASA.”

At issue is how Bemis “infiltrated” – that’s the judge’s word – a listserv run by public defenders representing parents in child welfare cases. The judge called her explanation “filled with lies.” And, the judge says, Bemis’ bosses knew or should have known that.
In fact, according to the judge, Bemis was essentially a one-woman NSA, spying on the defense attorneys to use the information against families. The judge says Bemis’ bosses knew or should have known that, too.
Bemis denies any wrongdoing. She says the whole thing has been blown out of proportion. Says Bemis: “My commitment to the welfare of children has never changed and never will.”

Other Examples of Bias

The case is just the most recent example of the bias that permeates CASA, the most sacred cow in child welfare:
§  In Arkansas City, Kan., a CASA chapter’s fundraiser featured a drag queen contest. The winner was the mayor. He dressed up as a woman to whom he gave a surname described as “graphic slang for a female private part.” So is the name the mayor chose for his back-up dancers. Oh, and one more thing: the mayor did his act made up in blackface.
§  In Indianapolis, the website for the CASA program declares every family from whom a child is taken is guilty. According to the website: “volunteers help ensure that the children we fight to protect are not returned to the very situations where the mistreatment occurred” [emphasis added].

Of course, most CASAs don’t behave this way. And some CASAs do excellent work.  But these sorts of problems are almost inevitable. So is behavior like this and this and this, and defenses of CASA like this.
Because bias is built into the way CASA works:
CASA depends on volunteers spending a few hours each month on a single case. Who has time for that? Not a poor person holding down two jobs. So it’s no wonder CASA programs sometimes are pet projects of the local Junior League and the demographics of CASAs tend to be vastly different from the demographics of the families they judge.

CASA volunteers, mostly middle class and overwhelmingly white, march into the homes of people who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately people of color. Then they pass judgment on the families and recommend whether they should get their children back. Judges routinely rubber-stamp their recommendations.

Disturbing Findings from a Study

The demographic information, and the information about judges’ behavior, can be found in the most comprehensive study ever done of CASA – a study commissioned by the National CASA Association itself.
But that wasn’t all the study found. As Youth Today reported at the time, the study “delivers some surprisingly damning numbers”:

§  The study found that CASA’s only real accomplishments were to prolong the time children languished in foster care and reduce the chance that the child will be placed with relatives.
§  The study found no evidence that having a CASA on the case does anything to improve child safety – so all that extra foster care is for nothing. (The study specifically controlled for CASA’s all-purpose excuse for this – the claim that CASAs handle the most difficult cases.)
§  The study found that when a CASA is assigned to a child who is black, the CASA spends, on average, significantly less time on the case. (The study also found that CASAs don’t spend as much time on cases as the organization’s public relations may lead people to believe. CASA volunteers reported spending an average of only 4.3 hours per month on cases involving white children, and 2.67 hours per month on cases involving black children.)

No matter how desperately they try to spin the findings (and Youth Today concluded that those efforts “can border on duplicity”), the problem is built into the CASA model itself.
So we need a better model.
CASAs still can perform a useful service as mentors to foster children and in advocating for services. But children need a real voice in court, a lawyer with a mandate to fight for what that child wants, for any child old enough to make known a competent preference.

That’s not because the child will always be right. It’s because judges are more likely to make the best decisions when all sides have advocates making the best possible case – rather than ratifying a Junior Leaguer’s impressions.