Allegheny County child neglect screening
Released: August 2016
The Allegheny Family Screening Tool (AFST) is a risk modelling tool used by Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, that aims to improve child safety by predicting the likelihood that a child referred for abuse or neglect will later experience a foster care placement in the two years after they are investigated.
The ASFT analyses personal data including birth, Medicaid, substance abuse, mental health, jail and probation records for each person reputedly involved in an allegation of child maltreatment and generates a ‘Family Screening Score’ that predicts the long-term likelihood of a child requiring protection.
The ASFT was developed by a team from Auckland University of Technology, University of Auckland, University of Southern California, and the University of California. ASFT Version 1 was released in 2016, followed by a second version in December 2018.
In April 2022, the AP published the results of an investigation that found the ASFT had flagged a disproportionate number of Black children for 'mandatory' neglect investigations when it first was in place. Carnegie Mellon researchers also found (pdf) that social workers disagreed with the risk scores the algorithm produced about one-third of the time.
Allegheny County officials dismissed the research as 'hypothetical', based on old data, and noted that social workers can always override the tool, which was never intended to be used on its own. Oregon dropped its Safety at Screening Tool (SST) shortly after the AP's investigation. The SST had been inspired by the Allegheny Family Screening Tool.
On January 31, 2023, the AP reported that several attorneys in the US Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division had submitted formal complaints detailing their concerns about how the algorithm could harden bias against people with disabilities, including families with mental health issues.
Allegheny County has been praised for making a significant effort to be transparent and open with the public and other stakeholders about the ASFT, notably concerning its implementation and the release of the list of predictive variables that make up the model.
However, the County has also been reluctant to release the model weights, or to provide the Family Screening Score to the families being investigated, or to judges - partly as it is seen as too difficult to explain.
Operator: Allegheny County Children and Youth Services
Developer: Rhema Vaithianathan; Emily Putnam-Hornstein; Irene de Haan; Marianne Bitler; Tim Maloney; Nan Jiang
Sector: Govt - welfare
Purpose: Predict child neglect/abuse
Technology: Prediction algorithm
Issue: Accuracy/reliability; Bias/disrimination - race, ethnicity, disability
Transparency: Black box; Marketing
Allegheny County (2019). Developing Predictive Risk Models to Support Child Maltreatment Hotline Screening Decisions
Allegheny County (2019). Allegheny Family Screening Tool: Methodology, Version 2 (pdf)
Allegheny County (2018). The Allegheny Family Screening Tool
Auckland University (2018). Building the Allegheny Family Screening Tool
Investigations, assessments, audits
AP (2023). Not magic: Opaque AI tool may flag parents with disabilities
AP (2022). Oregon dropping AI tool used in child abuse cases
AP (2022). An algorithm that screens for child neglect raises concerns
Goldhaber-Fiebert J.D., Prince L. (2019). Impact Evaluation of a Predictive Risk Modeling Tool for Allegheny County’s Child Welfare Office (pdf)
Hornby Zeller Associates (2018). Allegheny County Predictive Risk Modeling Tool Implementation Process Evaluation (pdf)
Stapleton L., Hao-Fei Cheng H-F., Kawakami A., Sivaraman V., Cheng Y., Qing D., Perer A., Holstein K., Steven Wu Z., Zhu H. (2022). Extended Analysis of “How Child Welfare Workers Reduce Racial Disparities in Algorithmic Decisions” (pdf)
ACLU (2021). Family Surveillance by Algorithm: The Rapidly Spreading Tools Few Have Heard Of
Oh S.,S. (2020). An Ethical and Technical Evaluation of the Use of Machine Learning Models in Health and Human Services: A Case Study of the Allegheny Family Screening Tool (pdf)
News, commentary, analysis
Published: December 2022
Last updated: April 2023