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Predicting risk without turning children into ‘lab rats’ Octavia Palmer
31 July 2015

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Predictive risk modelling (PRM) is a hot privacy topic. The neglect and abuse of children is a social issue that has understandably galvanised public interest, the news media and government agencies. One of the ways the government is considering tackling this high priority issue is by using computer programs that make predictions about the levels of risk to a child.

The Ministry of Social Development (MSD) describes PRM as the “use of automated tools to help identify people at risk early enough to allow for effective intervention” and it has been exploring PRM as a way to identify children that might be at risk from abuse or neglect.

PRM was recently the subject of this Radio New Zealand Insight documentary. It uses large amounts of electronic administrative data collected by welfare and health agencies about people that interact with them. This data can then be linked within and across systems.

A feasibility study on the MSD website lists the main predictors of risk as:

  • the presence of older children who have had contact with welfare services in the last five years
  • the length of time the parent or caregiver has been supported by welfare payments in the last five years
  • having a parent or caregiver who had contact with welfare services in their own childhood.

Other variables include indicators of mental health, location, sentencing history, family violence, single-parent status and caregiver age.

The Ministry says the use of PRM data can help social service agencies take steps to prevent the maltreatment of vulnerable children. Such actions can include assessing what interventions for high-risk groups can best reduce occurrences of maltreatment. PRM could also inform proactive targeting of social services to higher-risk populations and individuals.

Inaccuracies in the administrative data may create inaccurate risk predictions. This in turn might lead to people being unnecessarily targeted by welfare and enforcement agencies or, alternatively,  they’re overlooked or not assessed as being at-risk when they really are. Due to the volume of information and number of people involved in social service provision, the likelihood of inaccuracies seems high.

PRM also has the potential to unjustifiably affect the privacy children and their families. If PRM data is disaggregated to an individually identifiable level, then people may be flagged as ‘high-risk’ in public service systems forever more.

The potential for an ‘at-risk’ label becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy is also worth considering. When people expect children’s behaviour to match their ‘at-risk’ label, their expectations can, in fact, increase the likelihood of poorer outcomes. It removes individuals’ ability to control their identity from birth because they and their family have already been judged likely to be deficient.

In our submission to Parliament’s Social Services Committee on the Vulnerable Children Bill in 2013, we agreed with the surrounding consensus that we must do better with vulnerable children. Too many children are being harmed in situations where we have the opportunity to protect them. We argued that proposed actions based on PRM could challenge legal obligations to ensure ‘information is accurate, complete, relevant and up-to-date’ before disclosing to third parties.

With limited social service resources, the Ministry does need a way to prioritise resource allocation and further work is being done by MSD to decrease the rates of both false negatives and false positives as a result of PRM. The more accurate PRM is, the more use it has as a way to increase the timeliness of preventative responses that will help keep more vulnerable children safe.

In its current state, PRM needs further research and development to make sure that its predictions do not create more harm than good.

It is for these reasons we urge caution in embracing predictive risk modelling as a universal remedy for helping vulnerable children. Modelling has potential at a macro level to inform policy makers about the bigger picture of where we find distress and privation. But there are obvious dangers in applying a risk prediction model to target individuals. Testing such theories a also carries risks as noted in by the Minister of Social Development in this media report.

We have a responsibility to make sure children are safe but we also have a responsibility to preserve individual freedom and give people the ability to confound our expectations of them.

Image credit - Tatiana Bulyonkova, Creative Commons licence

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  • Nicely said!

    Posted by Becci, 31/07/2015 3:00pm (2 years ago)

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    The aim of the Office of Privacy Commissioner’s blog is to provide a space for people to interact with the content posted. We reserve the right to moderate all comments. We will not publish any content that is abusive, defamatory or is obviously commercial. We ask for your email address so that we can contact you if necessary to clarify your comment. Please be respectful of authors and others leaving comments.

  • Some of those factors will definitely help identify families in need. As well as to consider observable behaviour, when there are problems at home, or in development, this is obvious to anyone working with and around children - at playgroups, kindergarten, churches, hobby and sports groups and schools. That is the first place you can easily spot disturbed behaviour and weaker patterns of interrelation, because they tend to stand out from the group. That doesn't mean there is abuse, but it is a good time to intervene and get support in, as those kids develop, and be there at the time or circumstance when parents might be their most stressed.

    BU this also is a privacy issue, while these signs are observed, not all are signs of criminal neglect, so how much data is to remain private, and what is in the best interest of a family or child to reveal? Is there a system in place like this to cooperate with schools, etc, not to blame families, but help assist them?

    Posted by Brenz, 07/08/2015 2:07pm (2 years ago)

    Post Reply

    The aim of the Office of Privacy Commissioner’s blog is to provide a space for people to interact with the content posted. We reserve the right to moderate all comments. We will not publish any content that is abusive, defamatory or is obviously commercial. We ask for your email address so that we can contact you if necessary to clarify your comment. Please be respectful of authors and others leaving comments.

  • Hi Brenz,

    I agree assessing when and how to intervene in cases regarding vulnerable children is difficult. Social services tend to rely on professional expertise and discretion for suspected neglect or abuse cases in the classroom or hospital. Most frontline staff tend to develop practical and sensible approaches to sharing information and using this information to inform practice.

    One example of this is approved information sharing agreements (AISAs) which provide practitioners with a way to rigorously assess when disclosure of sensitive information about children and families is warranted and how to share this information in a way that preserves individuals’ privacy.

    There tends to be a strengths-based approach in these assessments. All children and their families will have strengths and weaknesses and most interventions aim to bolster strengths and mitigate weaknesses. This approach respects families and creates a stronger foundation for trying to change negative patterns of behaviour. Stigmatising families is not helpful even where neglect and abuse exists.

    PRM takes this preventative information-sharing a step further because it can highlight risk factors from birth. Again as with other ‘vulnerable children’ work by MSD, there is an emphasis on respecting the privacy of individuals and preventing damaging labelling of children. As PRM is in its infancy, a lot of the knots need to be worked through. For example, what level of risk justifies intervention? Should PRM be used to inform policy or used as a way to target individuals before abuse or neglect is even suspected?

    I haven’t got answers to these questions because enough isn’t known about the accuracy of PRM. I will be following the results of PRM trials and I will post again when we all know more about the actual rather than hypothesised limitations and potential of PRM.

    Thanks for your comment.

    Posted by Octavia, 17/08/2015 2:21pm (2 years ago)

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    The aim of the Office of Privacy Commissioner’s blog is to provide a space for people to interact with the content posted. We reserve the right to moderate all comments. We will not publish any content that is abusive, defamatory or is obviously commercial. We ask for your email address so that we can contact you if necessary to clarify your comment. Please be respectful of authors and others leaving comments.

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The aim of the Office of Privacy Commissioner’s blog is to provide a space for people to interact with the content posted. We reserve the right to moderate all comments. We will not publish any content that is abusive, defamatory or is obviously commercial. We ask for your email address so that we can contact you if necessary to clarify your comment. Please be respectful of authors and others leaving comments.

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