More Than a Year After 11-Year-Old’s Death, L.A. Bets Training Will Improve Contested Risk Analysis Tool

logo-chronicle (2)The 2016 death of 11-year-old Yonatan Aguilar reignited a years-long debate about the strengths and weaknesses of a tool used by social workers across Los Angeles County to determine the risk a child will be abused.

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to keep the risk-assessment protocol, called Structured Decision Making (SDM), in use through 2020, with a new focus on training aimed at addressing concerns with its use.

“This will help to better protect the county’s most vulnerable children preventatively and diagnostically,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas in an email.

Following Yonatan’s death last year, Ridley-Thomas and former Supervisor Michael Antonovich issued a motion calling on the county’s Office of Child Protection (OCP) to evaluate the use of SDM by the county’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and compare it with the nascent application of predictive analytics in child maltreatment detection.

Developed by the nonprofit National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD), SDM is similar to the “actuarial” questionnaires that insurers use to determine rates. It is used in jurisdictions across the country, including all 58 counties in California. L.A.’s system consists of six questionnaires that social workers fill out to determine both the risk of immediate harm and the likelihood of future abuse. Predictive analytics tools, like one being used in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, are entirely automated, aggregating spools of public records to gauge the risk that a child will be abused.

This became the center of some controversy. While L.A. County questioned the merits of SDM, NCCD defended its technology and laid the blame for Yonatan’s death on DCFS’ implementation of the tool. NCCD has enjoyed an exclusive contract to provide mechanized risk analysis support to DCFS, and the department’s former director, Philip Browning, suggested the desire to preserve that contract might be part of the reason for the pushback from the nonprofit.

“I think they [NCCD] know we’re interested in a predictive analytics tool, and I think they see that as competition, and they are concerned about that,” Browning said in an interview last year. “And I think they have a proprietary interest in continuing what they’re doing.”

In May, the OCP issued a report recommending that DCFS continue using SDM, but with some changes. Of the report’s five recommendations, three were focused on improving the county’s use of SDM, predominantly through increased oversight and training.

The board’s decision to approve the motion came after DCFS worked with the OCP to ensure that any new contract with NCCD would allow for the increased oversight described in the May report.

By Sara Tiano

Written By Chronicle Of Social Change

More Than a Year After 11-Year-Old’s Death, L.A. Bets Training Will Improve Contested Risk Analysis Tool was originally published @ The Chronicle of Social Change and has been syndicated with permission.


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