Using Computers to Decide Whether Parents Can Keep Their Children

March 17, 2009 12:20 PM
by Shannon Firth
A multiple-choice survey guides social workers’ decisions regarding when to remove children from their homes and whether to reunite them with their families.

Computers Make Big Decisions


In California, a computerized “risk assessment survey” determines the future for abused and neglected children. According to the Los Angeles Times, a method known as “structured decision making” is intended to avoid “scattershot” standards, and decisions “influenced by individual experience and unconscious bias.”

The multiple-choice assessments were designed by the Children's Research Center, a branch of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, and are being employed in 15 California counties and in 15 other states, including Michigan, Rhode Island, New Mexico, and New York. 

According to the California Department of Social Services Web site, Michigan ran a 12-month follow-up study comparing counties where the SDM model had been adopted and other non-SDM counties. Where the SDM model was implemented, there were “54 percent fewer new substantiated allegations, 40 percent fewer children removed to foster care, and 42 percent fewer child injuries that required medical assistance.”

Still, Dick Santa Cruz, the department’s SDM manager told the LA Weekly, “There is no substitute for social worker judgment. No tool will make a bad social worker good. It [SDM] is simply there to provide structure.”

Los Angeles Times writer Garret Therolf notes that sometimes math trumps human intuition: “Studies show that actuarial statistics used by SDM predict the likelihood that a child will be abused or neglected with a precision never obtained when humans made decisions on their own.”

Previous research has indicated that detained children are disproportionally African American, Native American, and Hispanic. Recently, the Seattle Medium reports, Washington state Rep. Eric Pettigrew brought forward a new bill requesting that the Washington State Institute for Public Policy research the effects of structured decision-making (SDM) in contrast to family team decision-making (FTDM).

Pettigrew hopes to learn which method is more effective in eliminating institutionalized racism. Pettigrew told the Medium, “We know where disproportionality exists in the child welfare system; now it’s time to find solutions.”

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Related Topics: Saving a feral child; race and matching a child to foster and adoptive parents

In other cases, reuniting a child with his or her parents is unlikely. Lane DeGregrory, writing for the St. Petersburg Times in July, described an extreme case, that of a six-year-old child named Dani, who lived in such squalid conditions that it reduced a veteran social worker to tears.

“Her ribs and collarbone jutted out; one skinny arm was slung over her face; her black hair was matted, crawling with lice…she was naked—except for a swollen diaper,” DeGregory wrote.

Dani couldn’t speak, and despite living with her mother and grown brothers all her short life, she was considered almost feral. She had been so deprived of stimulation and engagement that she “withdrew into herself.” Three years later, Dani, now nine years old, lives with her adopted family, Diane and Bernie Lierow and her brother William.

Controversy over whether the race of a child’s prospective parents should be used as a factor in determining their suitability has plagued social workers for the past two decades. In the 1990s, a new federal law, the Multiethnic Placement Act, banned “race-matching.” In 2008, following a study on transracial adoption from the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, new advocates for “the reinstatement of race as a factor” emerged.

Elizabeth Bartholet told the LA Weekly, “[T]hey have never come up with evidence that transracial placements hurt the kids.” Conversely, she added, “The longer a child waits for a permanent home, the worse off the child is.”


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