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AP: Algorithm screening for child neglect raises bias concerns


Sally Ho, Garance Burke, Samantha Shotzbarger, Peter Hamlin, Camille Fassett, Keith Srakocic and Matt Rourke teamed up on an exclusive package that revealed concerns over racial disparity in an algorithm used by one child welfare agency to help decide if a family should be investigated by child protective services.

Investigative reporters Ho and Burke spent more than a year cultivating sources that allowed them to obtain research on the impact of the tool used to support social workers in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, who make split-second decisions meant to protect children from neglect. Similar systems are in use or being considered elsewhere.

Algorithm combo
At left, workers field calls at an intake call screening center for the Allegheny County Children and Youth Services office in Penn Hills, Pa., Feb. 17, 2022. Incidents of potential neglect are reported to Allegheny County’s child protection hotline. The reports go through a screening process where an algorithm calculates the child’s potential risk and assigns it a score. Social workers then use their discretion to decide whether to investigate those concerns. At right, attorney Robin Frank poses for a photo outside the Family Law Center in Pittsburgh, March 17, 2022. A longtime family law attorney, Frank fights for parents at one of their lowest points — when they risk losing their children — but she worries she’s fighting something she can’t see: an opaque algorithm. – AP Photos / Keith Srakocic (left); Matt Rourke

With contributions by data reporter Camille Fassett, AP’s review of the research showed the algorithm flagging a disproportionate number of Black children for a “mandatory” neglect investigation when compared with white children, and that social workers disagreed with the risk scores the tool produced about one-third of the time. County officials said that social workers can always override the tool.

While use of this algorithm in the Pittsburgh area has been reported before, AP was first to investigate the impact of the tool on Black families. The package featured a lead illustration and engaging presentation by digital story telling producers Peter Hamlin and Samantha Shotzbarger respectively,and photography by Pittsburgh’s Keith Srakocic and Philadelphia’s Matt Rourke.

The work,supported by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting,is part of an ongoing AP series,“Tracked,” investigating the power and consequences of decisions driven by algorithms on people’s everyday lives.

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