Social workers feed in data on suspected abuse and neglect, and a decision pops out. Officials say the system eliminates the previous scattershot approach. Critics say the human element is slighted.

From the Los Angeles Times:

There’s no time to wash away the smell of sour milk from the baby’s skin, so the mother wipes the dozing infant’s face with the filthy bib hanging from his neck. “WIC cares about me,” it reads, a reference to the free food program for poor women and children.

Social worker Ladore Winzer has just told the mother she will detain the 11-month-old boy and process him this night into foster care.

It’s after dusk and the slim, efficient social worker is late returning home to her own family, stuck for now in the middle of this ghetto vista. Cars swerve around a lampshade; a graffiti tribute to a dead man runs across a cinder block wall; a hunched homeless man pushes his cart across the grass-tufted sidewalk.

“If I’m good, can I get my baby back in three months?” the mother asks, conjuring a weak smile in an attempt to seal the proposal.

Chances are Winzer will not be making the decision.

A computer will. …

The article goes on to state that while people can overrule the computer, the people follow the computer’s lead on 91% of decisions to open an investigation, …”92% of recommendations on removing a child from a home, and 99% of decisions on whether to return a child.”

The point of the programing is to standardize procedures among social workers — it appears that how social workers appied procedures previously were somewhat scattershot:

There is evidence that favoring math over emotion works. 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.

Having a computer program decide best action feels inhuman, although I imagine that statistics based programing that takes into the account behavior patterns of real human beings probably is a better system of placing logic over falible emotion.

I like knowing though, that humans can overrule the computer programing, and actually do in a notable percentage of cases. I would be very concerned if a computer’s interpretation of the data entry and the procedures became more important than the reasons the procedures were created in the first place — best outcome for the children who might fall under the concerns of Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services.

Autumn Sandeen

Autumn Sandeen

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