Comments by Terri LaPoint
Investigative Writer, Health Impact News
Parents whose children have been taken from them by Child Protective Services often tell us that the system is backwards. Instead of being presumed innocent until proven guilty, everyone involved with CPS assumes guilt, even in the face of no evidence of guilt. Some jurisdictions are taking this presumption of guilt without evidence a frightening step further: they are using “predictive analytics” to see which parents MIGHT abuse or neglect their children in the future.
In several cases reported to Health Impact News, we have already seen such allegations used against parents. Social workers have literally written in their reports to the courts that a parent has characteristics that might indicate that they may abuse or neglect their child in the future, even though there is no evidence that they have harmed their child in the past.
This is reminiscent of George Orwell’s “thought police” in the dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is inconsistent with one of the foundational principles underlying the U.S. Constitution, that of the presumption of innocence. Some have equated the predictive analysis model with racial profiling, because the algorithms tend to disproportionately target people who are poor or part of a minority group.
The National Coalition for Child Protection Reform recently addressed this alarming trend.
New York City bill would be a small step toward curbing computerized racial profiling in child welfare
by Richard Wexler
It is the latest fad in child welfare: Use a computer algorithm that supposedly can predict who will abuse a child. The term commonly used in the field is “predictive analytics.” A more accurate term would be “computerized racial profiling.”
The dangers of computerized racial profiling
- ProPublica reports that predictive analytics already has gone terribly wrong in criminal justice, falsely flagging Black defendants as future criminals and underestimating risk if the defendant is white. A new analysis  of ProPublica’s data confirmed their findings.
- In child welfare, a New Zealand experiment in predictive analytics touted as a great success wrongly predicted child abuse  more than half the time.
- In Los Angeles County, another experiment was hailed as a huge success in spite of a “false positive” rate of more than 95 percent . And that experiment was conducted by the private, for-profit software company that wanted to sell its wares to the county.
- The same company is developing a new approach in Florida . This one targets poor people. It compares birth records to three other databases: child welfare system involvement, public assistance and “mothers who had been involved in the state’s home visiting program.”
So listen-up “at-risk” new mothers: In the world of predictive analytics, the fact that you reached out for help when you needed it and accepted assistance on how to be better parents isn’t a sign of strength – it’s a reason to consider you suspect, and make it more likely that your children will be taken away.
The campaign for predictive analytics is led largely, though not exclusively, by the field’s worst extremists – those who have been most fanatical about advocating a massive increase in the number of children torn from everyone they know and love and consigned to the chaos of foster care – and also by those most deeply “in denial” when it comes to the problem of racial bias in child welfare.
Some predictive analytics boosters have even argued that:
“prenatal risk assessments could be used to identify children at risk of maltreatment while still in the womb.”
The real potential of this model was aptly summed up  by Yung-Mi Lee, a supervising attorney in the Criminal Defense Practice at Brooklyn Defender Services at the hearing on the New York City bill. Said Lee:
At worst, such tools provide a veneer of color- and class-blind objectivity while exacerbating the racial and economic discrimination and other inequalities in law enforcement practices and criminal and civil penalties.
If anything, the problem is worse in child welfare, where the rest of the process – the records and, in most states, even the court hearings, also are secret.
Read the full article at the NCCPR Child Welfare Blog .
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