Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A lesson for child welfare from the Hillary Clinton campaign: Don’t rely on predictive analytics

Hillary Clinton
I’ve written before about how one of the biggest losers in the 2016 elections was “predictive analytics.”  All those algorithms kept assuring us that Hillary Clinton was all but certain to win.  The media were suckered.

It turns out the media were not alone.  In her review of a new book, Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times writes that the campaign itself made the same disastrous error:

As described in “Shattered,” Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook — who centered the Clinton operation on data analytics (information about voters, given to him by number crunchers) as opposed to more old-fashioned methods of polling, knocking on doors and trying to persuade undecideds — made one strategic mistake after another, but was kept on by Clinton, despite her own misgivings.

Yet “predictive analytics” continues to be sold, literally and figuratively, to child welfare systems as a way to target which parents should have their children taken away.  In fact, as is discussed indetail here, predictive analytics magnifies the racial and class biases that are built into the child welfare.

It will work every bit as well in child welfare as it did in the Clinton campaign.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

New columns on state-sanctioned ransom, child welfare's addiction to bad science, and a tragedy in Pennsylvania

In Youth Today, I’ve written about the payments some parents are forced to make to get their children back from foster care. The euphemism used by child welfare systems for such payments is “child support.” But when someone takes away a child and makes parents pay money to get the child back, the proper term is “ransom.”  


In the Chronicle of Social Change, I have columns about how Arizona’s plan to secretly tape record parents and then run the tapes through a “Computer Voice Stress Analyzer” is another example of child welfare’s 163 year addiction to bad science ...


... and on the latest twist from the latest example of that addiction, "predictive analytics": a plan that specifically targets poor people - and penalizes those among them who reach out for help.

In the Morning Call in Allentown, Pa., I look at how child welfare's double standards are at the heart of the tragic death of a child, allegedly at the hands of the foster parents who adopted her.

Monday, April 3, 2017

NYC’s new child welfare chief is looking for help in all the wrong places

● The consultants he’s bringing in have one thing in common: a fondness for computerized racial profiling.

● Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has crusaded against racial bias in law enforcement, now seems to find it acceptable it in child welfare.


The depressing script is being followed to the letter in New York City.

Newspapers discover that children “known to the system” sometimes die. Though there is no evidence that these tragedies are any more common than before, now the press is paying attention.  That turns the deaths into a “series” or a “spate” or a “rash.” Then the child welfare agency, in this case the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), officially is christened “embattled” and/or “beleaguered.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
As is discussed in detail in a series of previous posts to this blog, a slew of mayor wanna-bes rushes in exploit the tragedy by announcing investigations and issuing reports. Gov. Andrew Cuomo does the same to gain leverage in his feud with Mayor Bill de Blasio. De Blasio fails to stand up for an agency that has, in fact, made remarkable progress, taking away far fewer children with no compromise of child safety.

That should come as no surprise. Back when he chaired the City Council’s Human Services Committee de Blasio proved adept at grabbing headlines for himself by exploiting an earlier tragedy, the death of Nixzmary Brown.

And of course there is the Ritual Sacrifice of the Agency Chief, in this case Gladys Carrion. (Officially she retired. If so, it was because the mayor wouldn’t stand behind her.)  Her replacement, David Hansell, has no experience specific to child welfare. So he’s seeking advice. 

There are several outstanding reformers in the field to whom he could have turned. But chances are he doesn’t know about them. Instead Hensell is looking for help in all the wrong places.

The people/organizations he’s bringing have done nothing to distinguish themselves in the field. And they have one thing in common: a fondness for computerized racial profiling, or to use the child welfare field’s preferred euphemism, “predictive analytics.”

Consultant #1


David Hansell
Of all the choices Hansell has made the most difficult to explain is his choice of Philip Browning, who

recently resigned as director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.

In the 40 years I’ve followed child welfare, when I’ve read stories in which people are asked to name systems that function relatively well, I’ve never heard anyone mention Los Angeles.

There’s a reason for that. The Los Angeles child welfare system is almost always embattled and/or beleaguered. It has the same sorts of high-profile horror stories as New York City, and they provoke the same sort of response: Foster-care panic.  But unlike New York City, L.A. tends not to recover from those panics. It just lurches from crisis to crisis.

Browning is beloved by those who embrace a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare. That’s because while Los Angeles has all the same problems keeping children safe as New York City, Los Angeles tears apart families at among the highest rates of America’s big cities. In fact the rate-of-removal in Los Angeles is well over double the rate of New York City – in fact, it’s more than 150 percent higher.

Or to put it another way, if New York City tore apart families at the rate Los Angeles tears apart families, instead of taking away 3,702 children in fiscal year 2016, the city would have had to take away more than 9,200 – a number that would be higher than all but four of the past 24 years.

Philip Browning
Browning did not make Los Angeles’ dreadful record of removals any worse. But he didn’t make it any better. The already high rate-of-removal in Los Angeles increased further at the beginning of his tenure, which started at the end of 2011, then returned to about where they were when he got there.  And the number of children trapped in foster care on any given day increased by more than 15 percent during his tenure.

And, by the way, Chicago does better than both New York and Los Angeles – and in Chicago independent court monitors have found that the emphasis on family preservation has improved child safety.

Los Angeles outperforms New York City in just one area: the percentage of children placed in kinship foster care – that is, with relatives instead of strangers. That improvement took place during Browning’s tenure.  Other than that, however, the only thing Philip Browning can teach New York City is what not to do.

There was one other distinguishing feature of Browning’s tenure in Los Angeles. He was a huge cheerleader for “predictive analytics” in which computer algorithms use various “risk factors” to tell caseworkers who is supposedly most likely to abuse a child.

As is outlined in detail in our publication Big Data is Watching You, predictive analytics has  proven itself permeated with the same kinds of racial and class biases that already plague child welfare. Yet in Los Angeles, Browning brought in a private for-profit software firm to experiment with predictive analytics using secret, proprietary software.

They didn’t use it on any actual cases. Rather, past cases were fed into the computer and then it predicted risk. The algorithm predicted many of the cases that, in fact, lead to deaths, near fatalities or “critical incidents.” There was just one problem: It predicted vastly more cases where there none of those things actually happened. In fact the rate of “false positives” was over 95 percent. If you predict that a vast number of cases will result in catastrophe, it’s no wonder you’ll often be right, even as you are wrong far more often.

This means that, were this kind of system actually implemented, vast numbers of innocent families would come under additional scrutiny and their children would suffer the enormous trauma of needless foster care placement – because no caseworker is going to risk being on the front page as the worker who defied the algorithm and left a child in an unsafe home. So all those children would face the high risk of abuse in foster care itself.

And in the real world, all the time and resources squandered pursuing these cases would be stolen from finding children in real danger – potentially undermining any alleged gains the  algorithm produced in finding such children.

Consultant #2


Consultant #2 is a private child welfare agency based in Florida known as Eckerd Kids. In Florida, everything after the initial removal of a child is handled by private “lead agencies.”  Eckerd, which had the contract for the St. Petersburg area was brought in to take over nearby metropolitan Tampa after, yes, a “series” or “spate” or “rash” of deaths of children “known to the system.” 

They implemented a predictive analytics algorithm called Rapid Safety Feedback. Eckerd then implied that this caused the deaths to stop – they brag about this on their website.  As the same time, they piously proclaim that they don’t really know if the two are related – and they really aren’t claiming any such thing.

In fact, the picture in Tampa is far murkier than Eckerd and proponents of predictive analytics claim.  Full details are in Big Data is Watching You.  (Scroll down or search for “What Really Happened in Tampa.”)

And while backers of a take-the-child-and-run approach across the country have been fawning over Eckerd’s methods, the agency seems to be having trouble keeping its own house in order. A foster child in the care of one of Eckerd’s subcontractors died late last year and the foster mother has been charged with first degree murder and aggravated child abuse. The foster mother worked as a marketing manager for another Eckerd subcontractor.

There is no indication that Eckerd uses Rapid Safety Feedback to screen foster parents. But if they did, this one probably would have gotten a low risk score. Why? Because as the Tampa Bay Times put it in an editorial that revealed a lot about bias in child welfare, analytics – and journalism – the accused

seemed in many ways an ideal foster mother. College-educated with a $70,000 income, she lived in a nice Riverview neighborhood …

Of course, every agency has such failures. But it appears that Eckerd is being sought out by child welfare systems across the county largely on the basis of hype about how it supposedly stops such tragedies with predictive analytics.

Consultant #3


Consultant #3 is Casey Family Programs. This is one of several separate but similar foundations all endowed through the fortune of UPS founder Jim Casey (the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which, long ago, funded NCCPR, is another). Casey Family Programs is run by William Bell who joined Casey after an undistinguished tenure running ACS.  But I think the reason Casey is being brought in is because of the recent work of its Executive Vice President of Systems Improvement, David Sanders.

Sanders also ran the Los Angeles child welfare agency – and he did a good job there. But more recently he’s been far less successful. Sanders chaired a wretched mess known as the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities. 

The commission was chaotic, it was angry, it was dysfunctional, it was secretive and it made its decisions based on newspaper horror stories.  In other words, a commission tasked with studying the child protective services system devolved into a microcosm of that system.  Details are in a series of previous posts to this blog, in NCCPR’s report critiquing the commission’s work, and in a scathing dissenting report from one of the commissioners.

And what was the key recommendation from this commission? Take the racially biased, class biased approach of predictive analytics and make it even worse.  And what was the basis for this recommendation?  Eckerd’s supposed success in Tampa.

From all this, an ugly picture emerges. New York City appears poised to reverse decades of progress, albeit inconsistent progress, in safely reducing the number of children consigned to the chaos of foster care.

And in another classic example of liberals who forget everything they claim to believe in when someone whispers the words child abuse in their ears, we have Mayor de Blasio. He has campaigned against racial bias in policing, but apparently he’s ready to accept it in child welfare.

 Good reason to be scared


During a previous foster-care panic in New York a 14-year-old wrote an essay called “I am scared of ACS.” 

Today, New York City’s vulnerable children have good reason to be scared of ACS once again.