Big Data Isn’t Ready To Predict Child Abuse.

The news in September that councils are set to use people’s data to detect child abuse has caused a stir, but councils in London have been piloting predictive analysis models across their child protection services for the last three years. And it’s not just councils – the NHS and the Department for Work and Pensions have been using predictive technology for some time.

September 2017 article in Apolitical, describes how councils in London have been applying data analytics to try to identify children at risk of harm since 2015. It also suggests that the predictive model used in one council had an 80% success rate, though it’s not clear from the article exactly how success rates were measured. What’s interesting about this article is that it highlights the financial advantages to councils, of using data in this way. The article tells us:

“Councils are expected to save over $910,000 for early targeted interventions, $160,000 by replacing human-conducted screenings with an automated system, and $193,000 for improving access to multi-agency data.”

The article says that the company responsible for creating this predictive model is called Xantura, and their pilot inside the child protection sector has been running since 2015. The cost of the software is an eye watering $1.25 million, and was launched in January 2015.

Councils using Xantura’s software have been slow to trust the model, which is not completely effective, or accurate, though social work teams may be more concerned about the threat the software poses to jobs inside the sector. That councils will have to pay for the software out of their own budgets is perhaps another reason the uptake on the model has been slow.

Xantura is adamant that their software will save councils money in the long run, and some local authorities are getting on board as a result. According to Apolitical, Xantura’s “Early Help Profiling System” (EHPS) uses data from multiple agencies, which includes information about school attendance and educational attainment, families’ housing situations, and economic indicators. The model then takes those statistics and turns them into risk profiles for each family.

The now infamous Troubled Families Programme, hides a Big Data secret of its own. The programme made the news after a whistle blower exposed the project’s fraudulent activity, which included using stale data to assess families. Members of the team also massaged the figures to engineer outcomes so that they could cover up the programme’s failure and make it look like a success. What nobody mentioned, or knew at the time, was that they used big data, too.The software the programme used was called ClearCore, and it was developed by UK based company, Infoshare. That was as long ago as 2013.

Technology offers benefits when it is accurate and effective, but the government’s drive to use predictive analytics inside the child protection sector, knowing these models do not deliver robust results, makes the software’s predictions highly dangerous, and the government vulnerable to costly litigation. 

Previous attempts at using this kind of data to try to predict child abuse took place as early as 1991. A paper produced by researcher Mark Campbell and published in The British Journal of Social Work in June 1991, looks at an experiment carried out within one local authority. The paper was entitled, “Children At Risk: How different are children on Child Abuse Registers?” 

The experiment included a checklist with 118 items on it, which was created to see if it could identify children at risk of abuse and neglect. The checklist was applied to 25 different families, who were attending local authority centres at the time. Of those families, nine had children on the local child abuse register. The checklist scores of the families on the register were compared with those that were not, in the control group.

The research discovered something fascinating. There was little difference in the factors studied between the two groups. The report offered one of two reasons for the finding: either there was little real difference between the characteristics of abusing and non-abusing families, or the registration process was controlled by events which were not solely related to the characteristics of the families involved in the study.

Other countries around the world have also been exploring ways in which Big Data could be used to detect child abuse. In 2015, a call centre dedicated to child welfare concerns in New Zealand decided to collate data on families that called through, to see if it could spot patterns that might predict child abuse before it happened. This pilot used 131 indicators, including the ages of mothers on benefits, the dates of their first benefit payments and the types of family units they came from. 

Although predictive models like these claim to have success rates anywhere between 76-80%, families could be being exposed to analytics that stereotype individuals and create unhelpful biases. One year after New Zealand’s pilot at the call centre, another call centre, this time in America, tried a similar experiment. The Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth and Families (CYF) child neglect and abuse hotline in Pennsylvania, collected information from the county, sourced also from 131 indicators, to see if the Office could detect child abuse before it happened, or escalated. The predictive analysis model they used was called The Allegheny Family Screening Tool. 

What the experiment revealed was unsettling. The problem, which was initially raised by a 2010 study of racial disproportionality in Allegheny County CYF, was that the vast majority of disproportionality in the county’s child welfare services stemmed from referral bias, rather than screening bias. The research confirmed that people reporting child abuse called hotlines about black and biracial families three and a half times more often than they called to report on white families. 

The implications of the findings for child protection services in the UK, and predictive models being used inside the sector, are enormous. Tensions between social workers and single mothers are at an all time high, with research being produced by groups like Legal Action For Women, which suggests that social workers already have an inbuilt bias towards poor single mothers, who in turn feel they are being targeted due to their economic circumstances. Where bias and prejudice may already be built in to a system, and data offers part of a picture but may not be able to factor in nuance, predictive models as they stand today may just be automating inequality. 

This article is adapted from a post Researching Reform published in September, 2018.


New Online Magazine Launches For Parents With Children In Care

A new online magazine which has just been launched aims to offer parents with children in care or facing child protection proceedings support and advice.

PAR, which stands for Parents Advocacy and Rights, features videos, conferences and presentations on what it’s like to lose a child to the care system, how parents are treated by child welfare professionals and families’ experiences of the system.

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The website explains that PAR is a parent led group offering support to other parents “with children in the care system, child protection, children’s hearings, and other situations where they have lost care of their children, or risk losing care”.  The ‘About’ page of the site says:

“Many parents and their children feel they are the last people to be heard when social work or health or education get involved in their lives. We believe that parents and families need help to be heard and that social workers and others need help to listen and to make respectful relationships with parents. No decisions about us without us!”


The project appears to be led by Maggie Mellon, an independent social worker practicing in Scotland. She was also Vice Chair of The British Association of Social Workers (BASW). Maggie is known for her outspoken views on the care system and her no-nonsense approach to addressing problems within the child protection sector.

In February 2016, Maggie commented on the state of social care in an article for Community Care:

“I believe that suspicion of parents and of families has become corrosive, and is distorting the values of our profession..

Despite there being no significant rise in the number of children who die as a result of parental abuse or neglect, risk of abuse is assumed to be high…

What does this say about how social workers view parents and families? And, just as importantly, what must it tell us about how parents view contact with social services? I believe that the evidence is mounting of mutual distrust and fear.”

In July of this year, Maggie also supported this site’s call to hold a debate on Britain’s forced adoption policies.

PAR’s website includes information about a conference being held in Scotland. The conference will give a voice to mothers who have lost children to care and adoption or are at risk of doing so. The scheduled date is 3 November, which we are assuming for now is set for 2019.

We tried to watch the featured video on the site, but spent the first two minutes crying.

Parents, do let us know what you think about the site.

President’s Guidelines On Anonymity In Family Cases Confirm Adoption Adverts Are Breaking The Law

New guidelines issued by the President of the Family Division to better protect children from identification during child welfare proceedings confirms that identification of children in care causes life-long damage to children and their families, and amounts to a breach of the child and their family’s human rights.

The Times picked up on McFarlane’s suggestion to give social workers the chance to address criticisms of their assessments during the court process this week, which has sparked concern among families going through child protection proceedings who have yet to be given the chance to address personal criticisms of them, which are often unfounded. The guidance also recommends passing on social work criticisms about council misconduct and illegal activities to Ofsted as well as the council in question’s Monitoring Officer to ensure that any breaches are dealt with in law.

Of equal interest to this site are McFarlane’s recommendations for keeping children’s details private to avoid their identification online and in the real world, and it is his reasons for keeping those details private which unwittingly make the strongest case possible for banning councils and agencies from posting intimate details about children waiting to be fostered or adopted online or in the public domain.

The guidelines issued last Friday make specific references to the impact of children in care being identified, which clearly apply at every stage of a child’s life. One of McFarlane’s key observations on identification and how it can not only traumatise families for life but also affect their futures is found on page 4, and is added in his thoughts about identification through ethnic detail:

“Identifying a child/parent by ethnic group can be a key identifier -and with ‘beyond border’ implications where families have links with communities elsewhere. Information about abuse can have lifelong economic, social and psychological consequences for family members; it can result in serious social stigma, rejection and trauma, impacting on marriage prospects and life chances.”

McFarlane offers more reasons on why identifying children in care is dangerous, this time in relation to their personal safety. At page 6 of the guidelines he says:

“The need for a public body to be identified when acting in respect of citizens is recognised to be important. Nevertheless we now know that naming the local authority in a public document may set clear geographical boundaries to the location of some children; their location may be further narrowed down by other information in a judgment.

The ability to find and locate children is re-activated once proceedings are over and a child is placed with a fostering or adoption agency. Councils and agencies are then free to publicly advertise a child’s name and details, often with photographs of the child, all fully available online and for the world to see, including offending paedophiles, child traffickers and criminal gangs. There is no sound logic to this.

McFarlane uses risk of identification to defend the practice of not naming councils in family law judgments (and in other parts of the report social workers), however there is clearly a much bigger issue here. It’s all well and good protecting children during proceedings, but their rights to personal safety and a life free of abuse and trauma do not end once these proceedings are over.

If you feel as strongly as we do that a child’s human right to privacy is an inalienable legal right as set out in the Human Rights Act 1990 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child – both of which the UK is fully signed up to – then please consider signing our petition to end the advertising of children online for adoption and fostering purposes. 

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Suicide Rate Up To Five Times Higher Among Mothers Whose Children Enter Foster Care

New research has emerged which confirms that women who have their children removed from them and placed into foster care, are more likely to commit suicide than mothers whose children are not fostered.

An article in The Conversation written by Elizabeth Wall-Wieler, a PhD student at the University of Manitoba, Canada, highlights key research which shows an increased mortality rate for mothers who lose their children to the care system.

Wall-Wieler explains that while mothers whose children are taken into care sometimes have underlying health conditions, the studies take those pre-existing conditions into account, meaning that the data is directly linked to the impact of losing a child to the care system.

The first study, published in December 2017 in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, was co-produced by Wall-Wieler, and examines suicide attempts and suicide completions among mothers whose children were placed in care. The researchers discovered that suicide rates among these women was almost three times higher and the death rate almost four times higher than those mothers whose children had not gone into foster care.

More research co-produced by Wall-Wieler and published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, in March 2018, found that mothers whose children were placed in care were almost five times more likely to die from avoidable causes such as unintentional injury and suicide, and almost three times more like to die from unavoidable causes, including car accidents and heart disease.

A third study, published in the British Medical Journal’s Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, in October 2017, shows that when a mother loses her child to the care system, her physical and mental health become significantly worse.

While the above research does not address the impact the care system has on fathers, it’s likely that this data will emerge in time.

The research, which applies to both the US and UK child protection sectors, highlights the importance of thinking about the effects the care system has on parents and the need to address the current policy and legislation around foster care and adoption. Wall-Wieler recommends more support services for grieving parents, and while this is an important point for parents who have already lost children to care, it does not address the underlying realities of children’s social care today, which is not fit for purpose.

It is also a timely reminder that policies which seek to wrench children away from parents rather than offer families support wherever possible, is both misguided and dangerous. President of the Family Division, Andrew McFarlane, horrified the British public last week when he suggested that care orders should be made while children were still in the womb. The family court process is deeply traumatic, and orders seeking future removal of children who are currently unborn would without a doubt lead to more mothers committing suicide, and taking their unborn children with them.

Setting aside the legal problems pre-birth care orders create, which McFar-Gone (our new name for him), should really be familiar with, the research is a sobering reminder for our senior judges that moving away from more holistic solutions could lead to many more deaths inside the family justice system.

Many thanks to Susan for sharing this article with us.

FC Al.

Chart Source: Fostering in England 2016 to 2017 

Poll Offers Shocking Revelation On Why Parents Record Child Protection Meetings

After this site revealed that law firms and councils coerced parents into signing illegal documents forcing them to give up their right to record child welfare meetings, a new poll asking parents why they choose to record offers a shock revelation.

The poll, created on Facebook yesterday, asked parents who were going through the family courts whether they had recorded a communication during their case, and if they had, what the reason was for making that recording. The poll initially offered the following five responses:

  • The professional seemed to have an agenda
  • I wanted to be able to read/listen/ see it again at my own pace
  • The professional had made errors in past reports/ communications
  • The professional was breaking the law
  • Other – please add your comment below

Facebook allows posters to add more options to its polls. A parent added the following sixth option to our poll, which went on to receive the most engagement:

  • [Social workers] were lying about what was said to fit into definitions for taking children – it was deliberate.

A total of 47 parents took the poll, with 43% of those who took part choosing the sixth answer – that social workers deliberately lied and misrepresented the truth to secure care orders. A further 31% of parents selected the first option, citing the need to record as a defensive measure to protect their families from child welfare professionals with an agenda unrelated to their children’s best interests. 10% felt that they needed to record to protect against future errors in reports and 9% recorded meetings to evidence law breaking. A minority, 7% left comments about their own experiences of recording and attempts by professionals at blocking them from making recordings.

One mother wrote under the poll:

“I didn’t ask to audio record, l just did it. I did then tell the social worker, who said l could not record her in my own home without her permission… She had previously fabricated so many malicious lies in her reports, but she turned all fake nicey-nicey overnight after that, even suddenly started calling me “sweetheart” 🤢 because she knew she was being recorded. She made me ill for a whole year before that, with all her lies and bullying and arrogant threats. Recording her, even against her wishes, turned things around for me.”

Public family court judgments confirming that social workers are fabricating evidence to place children in care are on the rise, but to date there have not been any civil or criminal prosecutions for these fabrications, which are illegal in most instances.

Very big thank you to Janie Doe for suggesting the production of this poll.

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EXCLUSIVE: Child Protection Professionals Intimidating Parents Into Signing Illegal Undertakings

This site has learned that law firms and councils are unlawfully coercing parents into signing informal agreements which forbid families from recording child protection meetings.

Clauses in an agreement asking a parent not to record conversations or exchanges with child welfare professionals are illegal, and are sometimes referred to in family proceedings as unlawful undertakings. Domestic undertakings set out in agreements are very rarely enforceable, and parents are not under any obligation to sign them. If you have signed an agreement prepared by a local authority or lawyer asking you to set aside your legal right to record communications in child welfare proceedings, you can withdraw your consent at any time.

This site has seen a copy of an agreement drawn up by a council which clearly states that the parent named in the document may not record any phone calls or meetings within their home or the local authority’s offices. Sources have also confirmed that lawyers and social workers are telling parents that they are legally obliged to sign these agreements.

Researching Reform has spoken with several parents who have all been asked to sign agreements containing an undertaking that they will not record child protection meetings or any communications between them and professionals involved in their cases. An experienced McKenzie Friend told this site that the practice was widespread and growing, as parents seek to record their meetings in order to highlight professional misconduct, and factual inaccuracies within reports produced after meetings.

Recording child protection meetings and communications is allowed, and while asking professionals for permission to do this is considered polite, it is not compulsory. Parents and family members involved in child welfare proceedings may record meetings and exchanges without telling professionals they are doing so.

Many thanks to the parents and lay advisers who spoke with us about this development.

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Adoption Agency Marketing Children On Facebook Sparks Public Fury

Facebook users were left furious last week after discovering that a local authority had been advertising children for adoption on the social media site. The page offers full length descriptions and links to photos of the children.

Suffolk Fostering and Adoption Agency, which is run by Suffolk County Council, is advertising children for adoption on Facebook through its business page Suffolk Adoption Agency.  The move prompted Facebook users to leave negative reviews on the page, which has a rating of 2.3 stars out of 5.

Families were shocked by Suffolk Council’s Facebook page, calling the strategy deeply insensitive to parents who had had their children removed through care proceedings. Many of these parents are active on the social media platform. Seeing children being marketed online by Suffolk Council led to one mother leaving a scathing review on the page:

“This page is disgusting, sharing children like animals… how do you think their birth parents would feel? It’s wrong and disgusting…. If I ever see my children on here all hell will break loose… disgusting the lot of you…. children… are human beings and deserve better than this.”

Reacting to an advert featuring a newborn baby on the Facebook page, a family law activist said, “Hang your head in shame Britain… up for sale like puppy farming, except these babies are worth £33,000 once they find adopters, #SS you disgust me.”

Another poster left a plea for help on the review section, asking the council to give her parents a second chance.

The adoption agency’s Facebook page was shared by Facebook users over the weekend, with dozens of private comments left under the shared content.

Concerns over a child trafficking epidemic in the UK do not seem to have stopped adoption agencies from marketing children online, despite the level of detail being offered by these agencies which is visible to everyone around the world. Pages and sites offer the names of councils and the whereabouts of agencies, making it easy for offending paedophiles to locate and target children, placing not only those children advertised at risk, but every child within the agency’s location. The ability to like and subscribe to Suffolk County’s adoption page also means that offending paedophiles could be tracking the adverts without the council knowing.

Allowing councils – who are responsible for assessing parents in child protection proceedings – to run adoption and fostering agencies creates a sharp conflict of interest. The dual role gives councils every incentive to remove children from parents so that the government can take advantage of adoption and fostering placements, which are big business inside the sector.

Suffolk Council’s Facebook page has over 800 likes, though it is not clear whether the engagement is organic, or has been paid for by the council. The page also mentions that the agency received an Outstanding rating from Ofsted in 2011. In 2016, the agency was rated Good, by the inspection body.

The current policy of protecting children’s identities during child welfare proceedings and then making their identities public to secure adoption and fostering placements is also ineffective, and in several instances, illegal. Parents are being contacted by friends who are seeing their children being advertised online, causing the families even greater distress. There is also no evidence to suggest that the strategy of advertising children online is working – a significant percentage of placements break down, and in January 2018, it was revealed that placement breakdown was on the rise.

Councils also do not have a legal right to advertise children where parents still have parental responsibility, which is the position in the vast majority of cases where a child has been placed in foster care.

Very many thanks to the wonderful Michele Simmons and the very generous posters who gave Researching Reform permission to quote them.




Family Court President’s Advice On Pre-Birth Care Orders Could Lead To Baby Deaths

President of the Family Division, Andrew McFarlane has suggested that the law should be changed so that judges can make care orders while a child is still in the womb. The President’s recommendation fails to understand how the policy could cause mothers heightened stress during pregnancy, leading to a sharp rise in miscarriages.

The recommendation comes at a time when newborns being taken into care are at an all time high, and prominent social care professionals are calling for the system to divert families away from the courts.

It is not just this site that is appalled by the President’s thinking on child welfare. The recommendation has shocked families in the UK, who took to social media this week to voice their concerns.

One mother told her friends on Facebook, “Oh Andrew McFarlane, says it all….. never mind the fact that a child isn’t even recognised in law until it’s born, but an order is being made 🤔…interesting…..”.

Another mother who had been through care proceedings said, “It is inhumane. It’s unthinkable.”

Other parents thought that the idea suggested the President was a misogynist, while some posters took the view that the policy could lead to increased suicide rates and backstreet abortions. An issue which also concerned commentators was the possibility of the policy being abused to feed the adoption and fostering sectors by effectively securing babies for these markets. One poster wrote, “Not a problem if they take kids from lunatics but we know it’s another legal instrument [the family court] will abuse.”

A father on Facebook pointed out the confusion in law over parental rights and the rights of the court, “Fkn disgusting a father has no rights to a child before it’s born, but social services should have. Has this fkn world gone mad?”

Some posters thought the policy was more suited to a story line in sci-fi series The X-Files.

McFarlane made his recommendation during a speech he gave at a conference for the Association of Lawyers for Children in Bristol. He told attendees:

“Irrespective of any practical difficulties that may arise in terms of listing and then conducting a court hearing during the first few days of a child’s life, there are, I believe, important principles of fairness and, frankly, humanity which may indicate that, in some cases, it would be in the interests of all concerned if some form of pre-birth court process could be undertaken…

Given the number of such cases which are now coming before the Family Court, and in the light of the real difficulties which some of these cases can generate, I wonder whether the time has come to consider some amendment to the statutory scheme to allow for the exercise of a prospective pre-birth jurisdiction in appropriate cases.”

While the President believes the idea of pre-birth court hearings is a humane alternative to what is currently on offer, this is not correct. Family court proceedings are deeply invasive and often cause families severe anxiety which can go on to create mental health disorders, like PTSD. The added emotional trauma and physical stress of having to undergo assessments and hearings during pregnancy will most certainly lead to women having miscarriages, or increasingly choosing to end their own lives.

What the President proposes will leave him with a great deal of blood on his hands.

Very many thanks to Michele Simmons for sharing this development with us.

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