Big Data gaining momentum in Child Protection services


  • Author: Statistics Views
  • Date: 10 April 2015
  • Copyright: Image appears courtesy of Getty Images

Using Big Data to assess the likelihood of an occurrence  is gaining momentum in child protection services across the US and as far afield as New Zealand.

The US state closest to using statistical methods is Pennsylvania, where child protection officials say they are as close as a year away from implementing a predictive data model to assist child welfare workers in deciding which children are most at risk.

However, the tool has met with some controversy as in the Pennsylania county of Allegheny, with cause for concern that such data will be used against some families and bring about undue attention when resources should be focussed elsewhere. Allegheny County announced in February that it has teamed up with an international research team led by a professor from the Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand to create the risk-modeling tool.

thumbnail image: Big Data gaining momentum in Child Protection services

In New Zealand, the Parliament is even closer to integrating big data and risk models into its child protection practices. New Zealand is creating two information systems that will allow the public and professionals to report their concerns about vulnerable children in a database accessible by “child teams” composed of members of health, education, welfare and social services agencies.

According to The Chronicle of Social Change, The effort has been championed by Paula Bennett, a member of the New Zealand Parliament. A speech Bennett gave to a group of Statistical Analysis System (SAS) users in February is posted on the New Zealand National Party’s website. “What I hope risk predictor modeling will do is transform the data government already holds and has access to, to make the picture clearer and the path of intervention more certain,” Bennett said in the speech. “This way, we will be able to go exactly where we need to be—the right family, the right child, at the right time—and we will have a better understanding of exactly what they need.” (Chronicle of Social Change, 1st April 2015)

Los Angeles County is another area which is considering using Big Data in its child protection services. In 2013, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection was created with the potential to adopt a predictive analytics model created by Eckerd, a private family services organization in Florida, but this has not yet been implemented.

There are major concerns that by using Big Data, families may be separated when unnecessary. For example, a mother may have a previous history of alcoholism and an old address in a deprived neighbourhood. However, the tool does not include a record if she has made attempts at rehabilitation, with no data available if she has, in fact, been sober for many years.

It is realised that the data has its limitations but could nevertheless prove a useful practical tool alongside the skills of the social worker - common sense, sensitivity, observation and astuteness. “The three more important things I tell staff everyday: common sense, critical thinking and accountability,“ Browning said. “Common sense is pretty rare these days, so if all our workers used common sense and critical thinking, we’d be a much better organization.”

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