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Can an Algorithm Tell When Kids Are in Danger?

The call to Pittsburgh’s hotline for child abuse and neglect came in at 3:50 p.m. on the Wednesday after Thanksgiving 2016. Sitting in one of 12 cubicles, in a former factory now occupied by the Allegheny County Police Department and the back offices of the department of Children, Youth and Families, the call screener, Timothy Byrne, listened as a preschool teacher described what a 3-year-old child had told him. The little girl had said that a man, a friend of her mother’s, had been in her home when he “hurt their head and was bleeding and shaking on the floor and the bathtub.” The teacher said he had seen on the news that the mother’s boyfriend had overdosed and died in the home.

According to the case records, Byrne searched the department’s computer database for the family, finding allegations dating back to 2008: parental substance abuse, inadequate hygiene, domestic violence, inadequate provision of food and physical care, medical neglect and sexual abuse by an uncle involving one of the girl’s two older siblings. But none of those allegations had been substantiated. And while the current claim, of a man dying of an overdose in the child’s home, was shocking, it fell short of the minimal legal requirement for sending out a caseworker to knock on the family’s door and open an investigation.


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