Allegheny Family Screening Tool in Netflix documentary

27 Feb, 2020
The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez (released 26 February 2020)

A new Netflix documentary series that raises big questions about whether the US child protection system is fit for purpose explores the potential of predictive risk modelling and tells the story of the Allegheny Family Screening Tool, built and implemented by a team led by CSDA Director Rhema Vaithianathan.

The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez (released 26 February 2020) examines the abuse and death of eight-year-old Gabriel Fernandez at the hands of his parents in Los Angeles. While Gabriel’s parents were convicted of first-degree murder, the case also led to unprecedented criminal charges against four Los Angeles County social workers who had worked with the his family.

Episode five of the series explores the potential of predictive risk modelling tools in child protection. These tools use administrative data about a child and family to automatically calculate the risk of future system involvement for the child who is the subject of a maltreatment allegation. The resulting screening score helps call screening staff to decide whether the allegation should be investigated.

The Allegheny Family Screening Tool (developed and implemented by a team led by Rhema Vaithianathan for Allegheny County, PA (United States)) is widely regarded as a world first in the careful and effective build and implementation of risk modelling tools for child protection.

Rhema is interviewed in the Netflix series, along with her collaborator Emily Putnam-Hornstein (Director, Children’s Data Network, University of Southern California), Marc Cherna (Director, Allegheny County Department of Human Services) and Erin Dalton (Deputy Director, Office of Analytics, Research and Evaluation, Allegheny County DHS):

“The problem that Allegheny County was looking to solve was that they were fielding significant volumes of calls to their child protection hotline, and they were trying to figure out whether they could use data, to better understand which calls they should screen in and investigate, and which calls they could safely screen out and not investigate. ”Marc Cherna, Allegheny County DHS

“The Allegheny Family Screening tool uses a statistical technique called data mining, to look at historical patterns in the data, and use those historical patterns when there's a new case, to try to make a prediction about what might happen in the current case of a child or family.” Rhema Vaithianathan, CSDA

“All of the data that I have worked with and have seen, would suggest that these algorithms are unambiguously better than human judgment alone and are superior to tools that are currently being used.” Emily Putnam-Hornstein, Children’s Data Network, USC