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Child Welfare and AI: Debate Mirrors Criminal System's Struggle

As child welfare agencies nationwide use or consider algorithmic tools to help social workers target families in need of interventions, a new study of the system used in Pittsburgh's Allegheny County shows a pattern of racial disparities in flagging children for mandatory neglect investigations, the Associated Press reports. Critics warn against agencies' growing reliance on artificial intelligence in deciding families' fates, saying the use of the tools akin to the criminal-justice system's risk assessments could reinforce existing racial gaps in the child welfare system.

Child welfare officials in Allegheny County say the tool, which social workers can override if they disagree with it, is simply a data-driven tool to help social workers do their job. The neglect cases it attempts to identify range from inadequate housing to poor hygiene, but not physical or sexual abuse, which is investigated separately in Pennsylvania and is not subject to the algorithm. “Workers, whoever they are, shouldn’t be asked to make, in a given year, 14, 15, 16,000 of these kinds of decisions with incredibly imperfect information,” said Erin Dalton, director of the county’s Department of Human Services and a pioneer in using the predictive child welfare algorithm. The Allegheny Family Screening Tool is specifically designed to predict the risk that a child will be placed in foster care in the two years after they are investigated. Using a trove of detailed personal data collected from birth, Medicaid, substance abuse, mental health, jail and probation records, among other government data sets, the algorithm calculates a risk score of 1 to 20: The higher the number, the greater the risk. The study by Carnegie Mellon University researchers found the tool suggested investigations in nearly one-third of cases involving Black children but less than 21 percent in cases involving white children. The study found social workers were able to reduce the disparity, and that there was no difference in the percentage of Black families investigated after the algorithm was adopted.


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