Tracking abusers: A smart county tool keeps child abusers on watch

With the number of child abuse and neglect allegations on the rise, Allegheny County is fortunate to have a new computer tool to help manage the caseload. Child-welfare investigators from around the state should take a look at what the county is doing and consider emulating it.

The Post-Gazette’s Julian Routh reported Monday that the county saw a bigger jump in child abuse allegations over the past year than any other in the state — 3,174 reports in 2016 compared with 2,760 in 2015. According to the county Department of Human Services, the number of complaints alleging neglect of children, as opposed to sexual or other physical abuse, also increased — to 10,905 last year from 10,225 in 2015.

The higher number of calls, stemming at least partly from the strengthening of abuse laws and reporting requirements following the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal, has increased caseworkers’ workload significantly. That means officials have to make tough decisions about prioritizing cases and allocating resources. The Allegheny Family Screening Tool can help caseworkers make smarter decisions about management of neglect complaints. That, in turn, can free resources for addressing the greater number of abuse allegations.

Allegations of abuse must be investigated promptly. However, child-welfare workers have more discretion in determining how to respond to allegations of neglect, which can include reports that parental drug use is affecting child welfare or that children are poorly supervised, truant from school or living in unsanitary conditions.

In use since August, the Allegheny Family Screening Tool taps a data warehouse with hundreds of millions of records compiled from the legal and social service systems. When a neglect complaint comes in, the program queries the warehouse about more than 100 factors, including a parent’s criminal record and past involvement with child-welfare agencies, then produces a “risk score” that helps officials prioritize complaints and determine which ones require further investigation.

Officials still are assessing the tool’s effectiveness, but the increasing number of complaints validates the need for high-tech case management. No computer program can replace the smarts and instincts of a seasoned investigator. But the Allegheny Family Screening Tool has the potential to help caseworkers make the most of their time. That ultimately benefits the county’s children.