● “I’m glad I’m leaving this place in very good shape,”
Cherna says. In fact, he’s leaving it almost as bad as he found it. Pittsburgh tears children from families at a
rate nearly as high as it was when Cherna arrived in 1996; a rate far higher
than many other cities, including Philadelphia.
● There were some good years in between, and things
aren’t AS bad as they were in 1996. But make no mistake; Cherna has failed –
and not just because of predictive analytics. That’s why Pittsburgh needs to find a new leader who will
radically change direction – as Cherna did, before he retreated from reform.
By Richard Wexler, NCCPR Executive Director
in The Imprint about the decision by Marc Cherna, the longtime director
of the Allegheny County (metropolitan Pittsburgh) Pa., Department of Human
Services to retire begins with one of Cherna’s favorite lines:
When Marc Cherna first came to work in Pittsburgh,
Allegheny County’s child welfare system was floundering. Plagued by child
deaths, burdensome caseloads, staff burnout and attrition and a lot of negative
media coverage, it was, Cherna readily acknowledged, “a national disgrace.”
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette also used the quote,
calling it “a phrase he’s used
frequently.” Indeed he has, But there’s
more to it.
Actually, the full quote is: “Allegheny County once was a
pathetic national disgrace. Today, it is a shining national model.” I know this because I’m the one who said it, in a CNN interview
in 2002. At the time it was true.
But it hasn’t been true for awhile. So let me update my quote: “Allegheny County once
was a pathetic national disgrace. Then it became is a shining national model. Now it’s a disgrace again.” And almost all of it, good and bad, is
because of Cherna.
I’ve watched him in action from the beginning; in fact,
slightly before the beginning. In the
mid-1990s, I served on a search committee that unanimously, and with great
enthusiasm, recommended Cherna and one other candidate for the job.
For awhile that was something to brag about. Early on,
Cherna significantly reduced the number of children in foster care and made
more modest, but real, reductions in entries into care. He put housing
counselors in child welfare offices and provided transportation to visits in a
county where getting around without a car is notoriously difficult. He supported
open court hearings and was a pioneer in emphasizing kinship care.
But by 2010 the whole effort had stalled – even though it
hadn’t gone nearly far enough. Then
things started going backwards.
Yes, the number of children in foster care was cut in
half. But that’s because the original
number was insanely high. The reduction
actually stopped dead in its tracks in 2011.
The most recent number published
by the county, for January 1, 2018 – the number Cherna brags about – is,
proportionately nearly, 50 percent higher than the state and national averages. It’s even a little higher than Philadelphia,
long excoriated, rightly, for being an outlier in holding children in foster
care. All of these comparisons factor in
rates of child poverty. Oh, and by
September 30, 2018, the number of children trapped in foster care in Allegheny
That isn’t even the worst of it.
The point-in-time number is not the most important when
determining if a community is ripping apart families too quickly. For that, you
need to look at entries into care over the course of a year. The picture there is even more dismal. The reduction in entries during Cherna’s
early years was more modest – about one-third.
Again, the county’s own data on first entries into care show the reduction
in first entries ended in 2011 – in almost every year since they’ve gone
up. By 2017 almost all the gains had
been erased – children were being torn from their parents at nearly the same rate
as when Cherna started. (Look closely: Although line superimposed on the county’s own graph,
below, suggests steady decline, the bars themselves show a pattern more like a repeating
U. The line distorts the visual impression made by the actual bars in the bar graph.)
These data measure first entries into care. The county report doesn’t include early data
for entries and re-entries combined. By that measure the county might look a
little better, since, in recent years the county has reduced the proportion of re-entries. Nevertheless, when comparing total entries
into care – entries and re-entries combined -- to other cities, the rate at
which children are taken from their parents in Pittsburgh is obscene.
Over the course of a year, Pittsburgh tears apart families
at a rate 50 percent higher than Pennsylvania’s longtime exemplar of bad
child welfare practice: Philadelphia. (See data tables for all Pennsylvania
counties here.) The rate of removal in Pittsburgh (total
entries divided by impoverished child population) is more than triple the rate
of New York City and Chicago. In fact,
were Pittsburgh big enough to be among the nation’s ten largest cities, its
rate of removal – more than 32 total entries of children into foster care every
thousand impoverished children - would be worse
than at least nine of them. Again,
these figures factor in rates of child poverty.
There is no evidence that Pittsburgh is a cesspool of
depravity with vastly more child abuse than all these other cities. There is no evidence from anywhere in America
that taking away huge numbers of children makes them safer – and considerable evidence to the contrary.
The kinship care excuse
The response from Allegheny County to these figures is
likely to rely heavily on the fact that Pittsburgh places a larger proportion
of children in kinship foster care – relatives instead of strangers – than the
That’s true – thanks largely to the pioneering work of Dr. Sharon
McDaniel and her agency, A
Second Chance, Inc. That agency
really is a shining national model. It may be the only genuinely positive
legacy of Cherna’s tenure. But here, too,
there are limits.
For starters, kinship foster care is still foster care. Yes, it’s almost always the least harmful
form of foster care, but a kinship placement still can be enormously disruptive
and still do harm.
But also, Pittsburgh is such an extreme outlier that even if
you compared only the number of entries into care in which children are placed
with strangers in each city, Pittsburgh still would come out badly. Indeed, Pittsburgh’s seemingly outstanding
record in using kinship care may be in part because Cherna’s agency places
children with relatives who, in some other cities, would not have been taken
from their homes at all.
How it all plays out
Case in point: A case portrayed in this
story in the Post-Gazette as a success. The story is all about how much a caseworker
for a private agency, Three Rivers Youth, did to help this family – including
yes placement with a nearby relative, after the children were taken, and how
grateful the mother is for that assistance.
But look at why the Allegheny County Department of Human Services
took the children in the first place:
There were several holes in Ms. Roberson’s cramped home
in the Hill District, giving rodents and other pests unfettered access to rooms
where she and her five children ate and slept. She said she was having trouble
getting her landlord to repair them.
Once Allegheny County’s Office of Children, Youth and
Families caught wind of the disrepair, along with other issues such as some of
her children’s truancy, [her children] were placed into foster care.
This is a classic example of one the biggest single problems
in child welfare – the confusion of poverty
with neglect. (Where were the housing counselors?) All of the help from
Three Rivers Youth could have been provided without resorting to taking away
the children. And it appears that
housing still is the reason this family has not been reunited. According to the story:
With [the Three Rivers Youth caseworker’s] help, Ms.
Roberson said she is focusing on goals to help get her life back on track —
moving to a new, safer home in West Mifflin so she can get her children
back, getting her GED and eventually finding a job and learning how to
drive. [Emphasis added.]
This is exactly the kind of misuse and overuse of foster
care that some of us on that long-ago search committee hoped hiring Marc Cherna
would prevent. For a few years, it did;
but no longer. And the problems don’t
● Cherna’s deputy and, presumably, a possible successor,
Erin Dalton wrote
an appalling apologia for foster care, dismissing the enormous, and
enormously well-documented trauma inflicted on children when they are torn from
● Cherna’s agency works hand-in-glove with the University of
Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) – where the extremism can be seen in their
support for urging doctors to do
less thinking before jerking their knees and reporting their slightest
suspicion of child abuse. UPMC and Cherna’s
agency also are being sued for an alleged “plan or agreement” that amounts to harassment
of pregnant women who so much as smoke marijuana.
Allegheny DHS has not earned our trust
All of this, of course, is before we even reach the issue
for which Allegheny County child welfare now is best known: It’s embrace of the
Allegheny Family Screening Tool, an Orwellian
predictive analytics model. It began
with those subject to reports alleging child neglect. Now, with some modificiations to the algorithm,
Cherna’s agency is attempting to stamp an invisible “scarlet number” risk score
every child in the county at birth – a score that could haunt the
child for a lifetime.
I’ve written about how dangerous this is many times (see the
links in the previous paragraph and our overview here). So now, I just want to focus on the fact that the
way the Allegheny Department of Human Services has sought to market the scheme,
in itself, illustrates why neither the plan nor the agency is worthy of our
● They said that unlike other algorithms that purport to
predict who is likely to abuse a child, AFST is transparent; everyone can see
what goes into creating the algorithm. But
in fact: You can see the ingredients but the weight for each ingredient and
even whether it counts in favor or against the accused remains secret. That makes the ingredients list nearly
● They said they did an ethics review and got a glowing
report. Well, yes. That’s likely to happen
when one of the reviewers is a faculty colleague of the co-designer of the
algorithm. In fact, they
co-authored papers together. The
review itself is startlingly superficial, citing only papers written by either the
designers of AFST or the reviewer himself.
Even then, the favorable verdict was premised on the idea
that the algorithm would be used only in cases where there had been a report
alleging child abuse or neglect, not on every child. (See below about that.)
● They said that the algorithm curbed racial bias. But only because the algorithm led to investigating
more white families, not sparing more Black families from the enormous
trauma of needless investigations.
● They brag about their algorithm predicting actual child
abuse -- based on a study which found that it fails
up to 99.8 percent of the time. (The
study was done by the designers of the algorithm itself – in cooperation with
● When they went full Orwell and created the version of AFST
in which the aim is to stamp the risk score on every child at birth in order to
target prevention programs, they had a problem: The ethics review that
supported AFST was premised in part on not doing just that. So, they commissioned another ethics review –
but once again, they made sure to choose reviewers who would tell
them what they wanted to hear.
● To counter the charge of “poverty profiling” they said that unlike the AFST algorithm the one they hope to use on every child at birth, called "Hello Baby" “only relies on data where the County has the potential to have records for every family." 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.”
● They say Hello
Baby is voluntary. But it’s voluntary only in the sense that you are
automatically assumed to have agreed to surrender your data unless you are
constantly on the alert for your one opportunity, in the first days of your new
baby’s life to opt out.
So ask yourself: If Hello Baby is so great, why does
Allegheny County have to, in effect, sneak it past the very people its
proponents say are most likely to benefit, instead of being open and aboveboard
about exactly what it is, and letting people opt in if they really want
it? If it’s as wonderful as Marc Cherna
says, people should be lining up to take part.
Cherna also says Hello Baby is to be used strictly for
targeting prevention; the data from one part of Cherna’s agency won’t be shared
with that other part of Cherna’s agency that does the child abuse investigations. But how long will that last? What happens after the next high-profile
child abuse tragedy? Also: The prevention workers who go out – knowing that the
family is “high risk,” and therefore possibly predisposed to see neglect
whether it’s there or not -- also are mandated
reporters of “child maltreatment.”
The Hello Baby data are kept out of the hands of child
protective services only as long as Marc Cherna or his successor or his
successor’s successor decide to keep it that way. If they change their minds Allegheny County
parents can’t change their minds and take back their data. And the way Cherna and his colleagues have
sold AFST and Hello Baby doesn’t inspire confidence.
Cherna plans to retire on March 5. But there’s no need to wait. Allegheny County’s political leaders should
do right now what they did in 1996: name a committee to conduct a nationwide
search. Perhaps they’ll find another leader
like Marc Cherna – the Marc Cherna from 1996, not the one from 2020.