DCF to use ‘big data’ for predicting factors in child death cases

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In an effort to reduce child neglect and deaths in the state of Florida, officials at the Department of Children and Families are using a unique safety tool – Big Data.

To protect children under its watch, the DCF is turning to large amounts of data categorizing the histories of approximately 1 million children, as a way to predict the factors leading to higher risks of death or injury.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 1,640 children died from abuse and neglect in 2012.

Using technology for predictive analysis is not new. As business and governments increasingly digitize records, and computer systems evolve to handle mountains of statistics, new software can identify trends in the marketplace.

This phenomenon gave rise to “Big Data,” the newest technological buzzword.

The federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities brought together a diverse group of child welfare, law enforcement, and public health and technology experts in Tampa on Thursday to discuss ways to reduce the number of child fatalities caused by abuse and neglect.

North Carolina-based business analytics firm SAS Institute teamed up last year with DCF officials and consulting firm North Highland. On Thursday, they presented findings from a recent project in Florida that analyzed Big Data and other factors that could contribute to abuse, bodily harm or death.

The result was a five-year Child Fatality Trend Analysis for investigators to predict needs of families in crisis.

“I am eager to present to the Commission on our success in using data to inform the practice of child welfare and protect Florida’s most vulnerable,” said Interim DCF Secretary Mike Carroll in a statement. “This recent study has helped us determine which children are at a greater risk and offers an additional tool for DCF and partners to better assess and provide for the safety of children.”

Among the findings:

  • Overall, child deaths are trending downward.
  • Children who received prior DCF services saw chances of dying reduced by 90 percent.
  • Children in abusive homes that were removed by the DCF previously were 14 times more likely to experience death of bodily injury.
  • Children also removed previously from parental drug or alcohol abuse situation had increased odds of death by a multiple of 15.

SAS analytics expert Albert Blackmon, a member of the firm’s Advance Analytics Lab for State and Local Government, says Big Data analysis could help shift the DCF approach to child welfare to preemptive, as opposed to reacting only when a tragedy occurs.

“Our research showed the tremendous positive effect of a visit from a caseworker,” said Blackmon. “But child protective services agencies across the country are overburdened.”

“Analytics can help caseworkers identify the most at-risk kids,” he added, “as well as pinpoint the services that can lead to the most positive outcomes.”

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.