|Starting in 2020, Allegheny County, Pa. will attempt to, in effect, stamp EVERY|
child born in the county with a "scarlet number" risk score that could haunt
the child and her or his family for life.
● They’re moving ahead with plans to try to label EVERY child born in
the county with a predictive analytics risk score that could haunt the child
● To avoid the stigma, parents have to affirmatively opt out. If they
opt out, they lose out on help for their newborns. But there may be even bigger
risks if they stay in.
● The county’s first “ethics review” found that its use of algorithms
was ethical in part because it wouldn’t
be applied to all children at birth. The
county solved this little problem by commissioning another ethics review.
● County officials promise this label-every-child-at-birth algorithm
will be used only to target prevention. That’s absolutely true – until it
isn’t. Because this promise relies
exclusively on self-policing by the same county officials who created this
nightmare in the first place.
● And an algorithm isn’t needed to target prevention programs.
It is perhaps the ultimate Orwellian nightmare: From the
moment your child is born, the child and family are labeled with a “risk score”
– a number that supposedly tells authorities how likely you are to abuse your
The big government agency that
slaps this invisible scarlet number on you and your newborn promises it will be
used only to decide if you need extra help to raise your child, and the help
will be voluntary.
But once you’re in the database, that score stays there
forever. And if, someday, the same big government agency wants to use the score
to help decide you’re too much of a risk to be allowed to keep your child,
there is nothing to stop them.
scarlet number may haunt your family for generations. The fact that your child
was supposedly born into a “high risk” family may be used against the child
when s/he has children.
Welcome to the dystopian future of child welfare – and
childbirth – in metropolitan Pittsburgh, Pa.
For a couple of years now, Allegheny County,
which includes Pittsburgh and surrounding
suburbs, has been using something called the Allegheny Family Screening Tool
(AFST), a predictive analytics algorithm, to help decide which families should
be investigated as alleged child abusers.
|Back when Facebook was fined, we pointed out the similarities|
to how Allegheny County's child protective services agency
The algorithm coughs up a “risk score” – an invisible
scarlet number. The higher the number the greater the supposed risk.
It’s all made possible by a massive trove of
data on families that Allegheny County has gathered in a way reminiscent of the
Cambridge Analytica scandal. Though Allegheny County’s behavior is perfectly
legal, it has amassed the without the informed consent of the poor people in
the database to have the data turned against them.
The algorithm is weighted heavily toward punishing parents
for being poor. In her brilliant book, Automating Inequality
Virginia Eubanks calls it “poverty profiling.” In
her review of Automating Inequality,
Prof. Dorothy Roberts (a member of NCCPR’s Board of Directors) extends the
analysis to show how predictive analytics reinforces racial bias.
To justify all this, the county submitted its plans to a
couple of scholars for an “ethics review.”
But one of the reviewers is a faculty colleague and co-author of papers
with one of the creators of the algorithm.
Even this ethically-challenged
gave a seal of approval to AFST in part based on the premise
that it would not
be applied to every
child at birth.
But getting the chance to slap a scarlet number on every
child at birth is the Holy Grail for some predictive analytics proponents.
And now it appears that was the goal of the
Allegheny County Department of Human Services all along.
The birth of “Hello
In her book, Eubanks reports that the county was, at a
minimum, considering introducing “‘a second predictive model … [that] would be
run on a daily or weekly basis on all babies born in Allegheny County the prior
day or week,’ according to a September 2017 email” from a deputy director of
Allegheny County DHS, Erin Dalton.
(Dalton is also disturbingly
about the harm of foster care.) As I noted in a
2018 column for Youth Today,
a model already exists — indeed it’s one of the models the designers of AFST
proposed to the county in the first place.
The county apparently turned it down initially because they
didn’t think they could sell it politically.
But clearly, with a couple of tweaks to the algorithm, now they think
they can – and, sadly, they may be right.
And so, starting in January, 2020, the county plans to phase
in a “prevention” program it calls “Hello
Here’s how the county says it will work.
During some of the most chaotic hours of a family’s life,
those hours in the hospital after a baby is born, when one medical professional,
volunteer or other hospital-affiliated person after another is traipsing in and
out of the room, the family will be handed a packet of information about the help
available through “Hello Baby.”
may also discuss the program with the family.
The program offers three tiers of services.
Tier 1 is automatically available to everyone
without having to surrender their data.
That tier is simply information about help that’s already out
Tiers two and three provide more
intensive help to individual families. But to get that help you must accept
having the child labeled by an algorithm as at moderate or high risk of abuse.
You have to opt out
The program automatically assumes you have given permission
for this massive invasion of family privacy – it’s the equivalent of a “default
setting” on an app you may download without realizing how much data you
surrender in return. (Or just think of all the data you may have given to
Facebook to share at will because you didn’t find the right button among the
The “Hello Baby” document is vague about the whole opt-out
But it appears you get very
little chance to actually opt out. You
get one notice – in the form of a postcard mailed to your home a few days after
the child is born. Along with a reminder of the benefits of “Hello Baby” somewhere
on that postcard will be a notification that you must specifically opt out of
being run through the database – otherwise you and your child are slapped with
that risk score whether you really wanted to participate or not.
The material made available by Allegheny County does not
mention how much time you have to opt out before your name is run through the
Nor does it say anything about
expunging a risk score if you choose to opt out after the county has already
And what, exactly, are you deemed at risk of doing?
The model was built to
stratify families based on the likelihood that there may be future safety
issues so significant that the courts require the County to remove the child
from the home before the child has reached their 5th birthday.
Think about that.
From the moment your child is born, you risk having that child labeled
at high risk for being taken away and consigned to foster care. From the moment
you say “hello, baby” you may be at greater risk of someday having to say
In effect, “Hello Baby”
creates a ticking time bomb in the form of an electronic record that might go
off if, say, an angry neighbor calls a child abuse hotline, or if you’re caught
smoking while Black.
To avoid that risk you have to be alert to the chance to opt
out, and if you opt out you risk losing out on what might be genuinely useful
We’ll never, ever misuse
all that data we have on you – we promise!
County officials solemnly promise not to use the data that
way – they say they’ll use it only to target help, and won’t make it a part of
child abuse investigations. But even the promise has a loophole:
As the county’s “Hello Baby” overview puts it:
The County pledges
that this Hello Baby analytic model will only be used to provide voluntary
supportive services as described here and
updated over time. [Emphasis added.]
Indeed, they will issue a signed document to that
What could possibly go wrong?
I think Allegheny County really means it when they say they
won’t pull away the football – sorry, misuse the algorithm – for now.
But there is no institutional safeguard in
place. There is nothing to stop the leaders of the agency that created “Hello
Baby” and crave having data on every child from birth from changing their minds
whenever they damn well feel like it.
When might that be? How about the first time there’s a child
abuse tragedy and word leaks out that the family had been labeled “high risk”
at the time of the child’s birth? That’s when the demands will come to make
this information available immediately to child protective services and to use
it to immediately trigger a CPS investigation – or worse.
That’s not the only problem.
The extra help families will get is likely to be provided by people who
are “mandated reporters” of alleged child abuse and neglect.
There are penalties for failing to report and
no penalty for mistakenly calling in a false report. So mandated reporters
always are under pressure to make “CYA” referrals. Now, these mandated
reporters will enter the home already knowing that a “scientific” algorithm has
determined the family is “high risk” for abusing and/or neglecting their child.
That’s bound to color the judgment of the helpers when deciding whether or not
to phone in a report alleging child abuse or neglect.
It’s still poverty
In order to counter the charge of poverty profiling, the
county has tweaked the algorithm – slightly. But their claims are disingenuous
Thus, they claim: “Unlike the
Allegheny Family Screening Tool model, the Hello Baby model only relies on data
where the County has the potential to have records for every family it only
uses universal (rather than means tested) data sources.”
But the key weasel word there is potential
Because right before making this claim, the county
acknowledges that they probably will use “child protective services, homeless
services and justice system data.”
So unless Allegheny County’s jails are filled with wealthy
white-collar corporate criminals, and its homeless shelters are filled with
people spending the night because they misplaced the keys to their mansions in
Sewickley and other wealthy Allegheny County suburbs, this is still poverty
And, of course, they include
data from any previous encounters with child protective services – and CPS
intervenes to a vastly disproportionate degree in the lives of poor people.
(As noted in many previous posts, CPS
agencies often confuse poverty with neglect
So if you use a previous “substantiated”
allegation of child neglect to raise a risk score you are not countering bias,
you are simply automating it.)
And, of course, both the justice system and the child
welfare system are notorious for their racial
– raising the risk that “Hello Baby” amounts to racial profiling as
ethically-challenged ethics review
As noted earlier, even the “ethics review” for AFST
commissioned by the county itself – the one co-authored by a faculty colleague
of one of the designers of AFST – emphasized that one reason AFST was ethical
is that it was not
someone actually phoned in a call alleging child abuse and neglect.
It was deemed ethical in part precisely
because it did not seek to slap a risk score onto every child at birth.
How do you get around this little detail? Simple. Commission
another ethics review from someone who is likely to tell you what you want to
So Allegheny County turned to Deborah Daro.
Like most people in child welfare, Daro really
wants to help children, and she’s devoted her life to the cause.
But Daro spent much of her time at the group
that now calls itself Prevent Child Abuse America – and she did so at a time
when PCAA was fomenting hype and hysteria about child abuse, and taking data
out of context.
They were particularly
keen on minimizing the role of poverty in what we label abuse and neglect. I
discuss this in detail in
the section of this 2010 blog post
called “PCAA’s record of extremism.” But
don’t take my word for it – back in 2003, PCAA came startlingly close to
admitting as much, declaring:
establishment of a certain degree of public horror relative to the issue of
child abuse and neglect was probably necessary in the early years to create
public awareness of the issue, the resulting conceptual model adopted by the
public has almost certainly become one of the largest barriers to advancing the
issue further in terms of individual behavior change, societal solutions and
Then Daro moved to the Chapin Hall at the University of
The same 2010 blog post documents
Chapin Hall’s bias, and some of Daro’s work there.
And nearly a decade ago, Daro herself wrote a paper
advocating for something very much like “Hello Baby.”
She called for:
of all new parents that carry the dual mission of assessing parental capacity
to provide for a child's safety, and linking families with services
commensurate with their needs.
So, in effect, Allegheny County asked Deborah Daro to offer
an opinion as to whether using an algorithm for the kind of intervention she
herself has been promoting for decades is ethical.
Apparently, she said yes.
I say “apparently” because the actual document does not
appear to be available on the Allegheny County DHS website.
Neither is a second ethics review done by
Michael Veale a “Digital Center Fellow” at the Alan Turing Institute in
In fairness, I am aware of no
biases on Veale’s part concerning child welfare. But his biography
reveals no knowledge of or experience in the field.
So he was at the mercy of those who
commissioned him to understand how child protective services agencies really work.
An intellectually honest ethics review would require
bringing together a panel of experts who have strongly divergent views on child
welfare and predictive analytics and seeing if they could formulate an ethical
framework for using such an algorithm in child welfare.
But of course if Allegheny County tried that they
would risk getting answers they don’t want to hear.
You don’t need an
algorithm to target help
A crucial false premise behind efforts such as “Hello Baby”
goes like this: Funds are limited, so we need this kind of algorithm to target
help to the families who need it most.
But no such algorithm is necessary.
That’s because the families that need the most help have one thing in
common: They’re poor.
So all you have to
do is offer the high-end “Hello Baby” services to families of infants born in
hospitals that serve the county’s poorest communities.
And, while you’re at it, make sure the help
addresses concrete needs of poor families instead of just forcing them to run a
gauntlet of counseling sessions and parent education classes.
The “Hello Baby” overview paper claims this won’t work
because it’s “based on the incorrect assumption that poverty is the singular
driver for abuse.”
But that is setting
up a straw man.
No one says poverty is
driver for abuse.
But poverty is, by far, the most important
driver of what we deem to be abuse and, especially, neglect.
The “Hello Baby” document goes on to claim that other causes
are “untreated mental illness, substance use disorder and intimate partner
But if you’re middle class
your mental illness probably won’t go untreated – because you have the money to
Your substance use won’t be
deemed a disorder, because middle-class parents can use substances pretty much
with impunity. And an algorithm that checks criminal justice and homelessness
records to determine risk isn’t likely to catch wealthy drug users, now is it?)
Most important, there is now a
wealth of research
documenting the simple fact that what we deem to be
child maltreatment can be fixed primarily by transferring just a little more
wealth to poor people.
So why do we need a giant Orwellian child welfare
surveillance state to “help” these families? We don’t.
We only need it to target them, control them,
and quite possibly, take away their children.