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Computer calls the shots for L.A. County children in peril

March 08, 2009|Garrett Therolf

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, late returning home to her own family, is 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 process starts with a tip to Los Angeles County's child abuse hotline. Over the course of a typical week, the Department of Children and Family Services receives 3,000 calls.

Those that meet the legal threshold -- as determined by the computer and verified by a worker -- are routed to investigators like Winzer. The process is usually inaccessible to outsiders because of child confidentiality rules, but over four days The Times had the rare opportunity to witness it.

Upstairs from the Hawthorne branch's stark waiting room, where a guard stands watch, the phone rings at Winzer's desk.

A caller to the hotline has reported seeing three young children wearing torn clothing on the broken sidewalk outside a Popeye's chicken. Nearby, a colleague fields a report of a 7-month-old baby hospitalized after being sodomized. Another worker responds to an allegation that a young mother has abandoned her infant with her ex-boyfriend's parents.

At their computer terminals, Winzer and her colleagues begin translating the allegations into answers that fit neatly into the multiple choice questions asked by the computer program called Structured Decision Making, or SDM.

If a parent has a drug or alcohol problem, the computer adds one point to the score; no prior referrals subtracts a point. An allegation of excessive discipline, defined as "torture," adds another point.

The system provides a series of questionnaires for different stages of an investigation.

Social workers' answers to certain questions prompt action. In a safety assessment, for example, a caregiver found not to be supervising or feeding a child must be directed to immediate assistance; otherwise the computer requires that the child be detained.

After about two dozen entries on the risk assessment questionnaire, the computer kicks back a level of risk: low, moderate, high or very high.

Critics say SDM mechanizes a decision-making process that only human beings can fully comprehend. The questionnaires, they argue, fail to take full advantage of social workers' experience and intuition. Others -- including many who use SDM on a daily basis -- say it provides objectivity in answering key questions where there once was subjectivity:

Should a parent be investigated for abuse or neglect? Should a child be removed from the home? Should a child ultimately be reunited with his or her parents?

As a case moves from one point to the next, the answers to SDM's questionnaires build a complete dossier. Because Los Angeles County's child protection system works like an assembly line, no single person follows a case from beginning to end; only the computer does.

Although humans can overrule the computer, SDM's call has stood in 91% of decisions in the county on whether to open an investigation, 92% of recommendations on removing a child from a home and 99% of decisions on whether to return a child.

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.

But SDM is only as good as the information humans enter into it.

Since it went into widespread use in Los Angeles County seven years ago, there have still been high-profile cases of children left in abusive households.

"If the social workers don't do their investigation properly, if they don't analyze the case thoroughly, it will be garbage in and garbage out," said Trish Ploehn, director of the family services department.

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Hope for a good outcome

In a conference room at the Hawthorne office, veteran social worker Wendy Luke seems full of hope.

"I think you really want to do whatever it takes," she tells a mother whose four children have been in foster care for weeks.

The children -- three boys and a girl ages 4 to 10 -- were removed from the mother's care after a police officer responded to a prank 911 call and found them home alone, wrestling in their underwear. One had burned another with a spatula while trying to fry an egg. None went to school.

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