Child abuse risk analysis tool flags families that need enhanced social services

By providing supervisors with data on children at risk early in the assessment process, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services can better respond to family crises.

The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) developed a risk stratification tool that screens existing data on child abuse investigations and identifies cases where children are at risk of maltreatment or being placed in foster care.

According to an overview of the program, inexperienced social workers often handle emergencies without sufficient support and are swamped by high numbers of referrals and investigations, resulting in uneven safety and risk assessments. A 2019 audit said that supervisors could have prevented the errors when reviewing the workers’ assessments, but they “often completed their reviews long after the social workers made decisions regarding the children’s safety.”

These issues highlighted the need for improved data management and analytics early in the process so the department can be better prepared when responding to family crises.

The risk stratification model, whose development was led by the Children’s Data Network, analyzes various factors and historical information in DCFS and the state’s Child Welfare Services/Case Management System and alerts supervisors when enhanced support is needed.

It reviews more than 300 factors on the children, including the age and gender of involved individuals, the number of previously reported maltreatment allegations, the existence of past termination of parental rights, health information such as prenatal substance use, the initial reporter and other data.

To avoid racial bias in the system, the stratification model does not assess data on race and ethnicity or geographic indicators, including ZIP codes. The department said it has tested the model for accuracy across different racial and ethnic subgroups and has identified screening and reporting practices that may trigger unnecessary investigations on African American families.

The tool identifies opportunities for practice improvement to prevent the cycle of repeated reports to the child protection hotline by giving supervisors critical information at the outset of an investigation – when there is a small window of opportunity to conduct safety assessments, gather information and develop service plans.

By reviewing information the tool presents when starting an investigation, supervisors have more time to coordinate service and collaborate with community partners to resolve child maltreatment allegations.

After training and validating the model, the risk stratification tool launched in three offices in Los Angeles county in August 2021 – Belvedere, Lancaster and Santa Fe Springs – as part of the county’s child abuse prevention efforts.

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