June 15, 2018

Credit: David Goldman / AP Photo

When a call comes in to a child welfare hotline, how should the call-taker react? Is the complaint significant enough to merit an investigation? Should caseworkers be sent to the child’s home? Or is the call frivolous? And would the stress of an investigation do more harm than good?

These are tough questions and ones that counties and states throughout the country are trying their best to answer. One of them, Allegheny County, which surrounds Pittsburgh, has turned to an algorithm for help.

Three Takeaways: 

  • If you’re a lay person, it might seem like the government should respond to every call to child welfare services. But it’s not that simple. After all, the call could be nothing, and an investigation can be stressful and frightening to a family. It’s a complicated choice. 
  • Allegheny County’s algorithm uses data to predict future involvement with child protective services. It’s able to take in all the data the county has on the child and family, and builds its recommendation based on the relationship between that data, and how children in similar situations have fared in the past. 
  • The algorithm has had some success, but it’s also controversial. Social scientist Virginia Eubanks says that parents are worried the algorithm might see harm where no harm actually exists.

More Reading: 

algorithms, childhood, Sci and Tech, Rhema Vaithianathan, Emily Putnam-Hornstein, Virginia Eubanks

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