The call to Pittsburgh’s hotline for child abuse and neglect came in at 3:50 p.m. on the Wednesday after Thanksgiving 2016. Sitting in one of 12 cubicles, in a former factory now occupied by the Allegheny County Police Department and the back offices of the department of Children, Youth and Families, the call screener, Timothy Byrne, listened as a preschool teacher described what a 3-year-old child had told him. The little girl had said that a man, a friend of her mother’s, had been in her home when he “hurt their head and was bleeding and shaking on the floor and the bathtub.” The teacher said he had seen on the news that the mother’s boyfriend had overdosed and died in the home.
According to the case records, Byrne searched the department’s computer database for the family, finding allegations dating back to 2008: parental substance abuse, inadequate hygiene, domestic violence, inadequate provision of food and physical care, medical neglect and sexual abuse by an uncle involving one of the girl’s two older siblings. But none of those allegations had been substantiated. And while the current claim, of a man dying of an overdose in the child’s home, was shocking, it fell short of the minimal legal requirement for sending out a caseworker to knock on the family’s door and open an investigation.
Before closing the file, Byrne had to estimate the risk to the child’s future well-being. Screeners like him hear far more alarming stories of children in peril nearly every day. He keyed into the computer: “Low risk.” In the box where he had to select the likely threat to the children’s immediate safety, he chose “No safety threat.”
Had the decision been left solely to Byrne — as these decisions are left to screeners and their supervisors in jurisdictions around the world — that might have been the end of it. He would have, in industry parlance, screened the call out. That’s what happens to around half of the 14,000 or so allegations received each year in Allegheny County — reports that might involve charges of serious physical harm to the child, but can also include just about anything that a disgruntled landlord, noncustodial parent or nagging neighbor decides to call about. Nationally, 42 percent of the four million allegations received in 2015, involving 7.2 million children, were screened out, often based on sound legal reasoning but also because of judgment calls, opinions, biases and beliefs. And yet more United States children died in 2015 as a result of abuse and neglect — 1,670, according to the federal Administration for Children and Families; or twice that many, according to leaders in the field — than died of cancer.
This time, however, the decision to screen out or in was not Byrne’s alone. In August 2016, Allegheny County became the first jurisdiction in the United States, or anywhere else, to let a predictive-analytics algorithm — the same kind of sophisticated pattern analysis used in credit reports, the automated buying and selling of stocks and the hiring, firing and fielding of baseball players on World Series-winning teams — offer up a second opinion on every incoming call, in hopes of doing a better job of identifying the families most in need of intervention. And so Byrne’s final step in assessing the call was to click on the icon of the Allegheny Family Screening Tool.