PITTSBURGH — For the 2 weeks that the Hackneys’ child woman lay in a Pittsburgh hospital mattress weak from dehydration, her dad and mom hardly ever left her facet, generally sleeping on the fold-out couch within the room.

They stayed with their daughter across the clock when she was moved to a rehab heart to regain her power. Lastly, the 8-month-old stopped batting away her bottles and began placing on weight once more.

“She was doing nicely and we began to ask when can she go residence,” Lauren Hackney stated. “After which from that second on, on the time, they utterly stonewalled us and by no means stated something.”

The couple was surprised when baby welfare officers confirmed up, informed them they had been negligent and took their daughter away.

“They’d custody papers and so they took her proper there after which,” Lauren Hackney recalled. “And we began crying.”

Greater than a 12 months later, their daughter, now 2, stays in foster care. The Hackneys, who’ve developmental disabilities, are struggling to know how taking their daughter to the hospital when she refused to eat might be seen as so neglectful that she’d must be taken from her residence.

They surprise if an artificial intelligence device that the Allegheny County Division of Human Providers makes use of to foretell which kids might be liable to hurt singled them out due to their disabilities.

The U.S. Justice Division is asking the identical query. The company is investigating the county’s baby welfare system to find out whether or not its use of the influential algorithm discriminates in opposition to individuals with disabilities or different protected teams, The Related Press has discovered. Later this month, federal civil rights attorneys will interview the Hackneys and Andrew Hackney’s mom, Cynde Hackney-Fierro, the grandmother stated.

Lauren Hackney has attention-deficit hyperactivity dysfunction that impacts her reminiscence, and her husband, Andrew, has a comprehension dysfunction and nerve harm from a stroke suffered in his 20s. Their child woman was simply 7 months outdated when she started refusing to drink her bottles. Going through a nationwide scarcity of formulation, they traveled from Pennsylvania to West Virginia in search of some and had been compelled to alter manufacturers. The infant didn’t appear to love it.

Her pediatrician first reassured them that infants generally might be fickle with feeding and supplied concepts to assist her get again her urge for food, they stated.

When she grew torpid days later, they stated, the identical physician informed them to take her to the emergency room. The Hackneys consider medical workers alerted baby protecting providers after they confirmed up with a child who was dehydrated and malnourished.

That’s once they consider their info was fed into the Allegheny Household Screening Instrument, which county officers say is normal process for neglect allegations. Quickly, a social employee appeared to query them, and their daughter was despatched to foster care.

Over the previous six years, Allegheny County has served as a real-world laboratory for testing AI-driven baby welfare instruments that crunch reams of knowledge about native households to attempt to predict which kids are prone to face hazard of their properties. Right this moment, baby welfare companies in a minimum of 26 states and Washington, D.C., have thought of utilizing algorithmic instruments, and jurisdictions in a minimum of 11 have deployed them, in accordance with the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Hackneys’ story — primarily based on interviews, inside emails and authorized paperwork — illustrates the opacity surrounding these algorithms. Whilst they battle to regain custody of their daughter, they’ll’t query the “danger rating” Allegheny County’s device could have assigned to her case as a result of officers gained’t disclose it to them. And neither the county nor the individuals who constructed the device have ever defined which variables could have been used to measure the Hackneys’ talents as dad and mom.

“It’s like you’ve got a problem with somebody who has a incapacity,” Andrew Hackney stated in an interview from their house in suburban Pittsburgh. “In that case … you most likely find yourself going after everybody who has children and has a incapacity.”

As a part of a yearlong investigation, the AP obtained the information factors underpinning a number of algorithms deployed by baby welfare companies, together with some marked “CONFIDENTIAL,” providing uncommon perception into the mechanics driving these rising applied sciences. Among the many components they’ve used to calculate a household’s danger, whether or not outright or by proxy: race, poverty charges, incapacity standing and household dimension. They embody whether or not a mom smoked earlier than she was pregnant and whether or not a household had earlier baby abuse or neglect complaints.

What they measure issues. A current evaluation by ACLU researchers discovered that when Allegheny’s algorithm flagged individuals who accessed county providers for psychological well being and different behavioral well being applications, that would add as much as three factors to a baby’s danger rating, a major improve on a scale of 20.

Allegheny County spokesman Mark Bertolet declined to handle the Hackney case and didn’t reply detailed questions concerning the standing of the federal probe or critiques of the information powering the device, together with by the ACLU.

“As a matter of coverage, we don’t touch upon lawsuits or authorized issues,” Bertolet stated in an e mail.

Justice Division spokeswoman Aryele Bradford declined to remark.


Baby welfare algorithms plug huge quantities of public knowledge about native households into complicated statistical fashions to calculate what they name a danger rating. The quantity that’s generated is then used to advise social staff as they determine which households needs to be investigated, or which households want extra consideration — a weighty resolution that may generally imply life or loss of life.

Quite a lot of native leaders have tapped into AI expertise whereas below stress to make systemic modifications, akin to in Oregon throughout a foster care disaster and in Los Angeles County after a sequence of high-profile baby deaths in one of many nation’s largest county baby welfare methods.

LA County’s Division of Kids and Household Providers Director Brandon Nichols says algorithms will help establish high-risk households and enhance outcomes in a deeply strained system. But he couldn’t clarify how the screening device his company makes use of works.

“We’re type of the social work facet of the home, not the IT facet of the home,” Nichols stated in an interview. “How the algorithm features, in some methods is, I don’t wish to say is magic to us, nevertheless it’s past our experience and expertise.”

Nichols and officers at two different baby welfare companies referred detailed questions on their AI instruments to the surface builders who created them.

In Larimer County, Colorado, one official acknowledged she didn’t know what variables had been used to evaluate native households.

“The variables and weights utilized by the Larimer Determination Aide Instrument are a part of the code developed by Auckland and thus we shouldn’t have this stage of element,” Jill Maasch, a Larimer County Human Providers spokeswoman stated in an e mail, referring to the builders.

In Pennsylvania, California and Colorado, county officers have opened up their knowledge methods to the 2 tutorial builders who choose knowledge factors to construct their algorithms. Rhema Vaithianathan, a professor of well being economics at New Zealand’s Auckland College of Know-how, and Emily Putnam-Hornstein, a professor on the College of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Faculty of Social Work, stated in an e mail that their work is clear and that they make their laptop fashions public.

“In every jurisdiction wherein a mannequin has been absolutely carried out now we have launched an outline of fields that had been used to construct the device, together with info as to the strategies used,” they stated by e mail.

A 241-page report on the Allegheny County web site contains pages of coded variables and statistical calculations.

Vaithianathan and Putnam-Hornstein’s work has been hailed in reviews printed by UNICEF and the Biden administration alike for devising laptop fashions that promise to lighten caseworkers’ hundreds by drawing from a set of straightforward components. They’ve described utilizing such instruments as an ethical crucial, insisting that baby welfare officers ought to draw from all knowledge at their disposal to ensure kids aren’t maltreated.

By monitoring their work throughout the nation, nonetheless, the AP discovered their instruments can set households up for separation by score their danger primarily based on private traits they can not change or management, akin to race or incapacity, quite than simply their actions as dad and mom.

In Allegheny County, a sprawling county of 1.2 million close to the Ohio border, the algorithm has accessed an array of exterior knowledge, together with jail, juvenile probation, Medicaid, welfare, well being and delivery information, all held in an unlimited countywide “knowledge warehouse.” The device makes use of that info to foretell the chance {that a} baby will likely be positioned in foster care two years after a household is first investigated.

County officers have informed the AP they’re pleased with their cutting-edge strategy, and even expanded their work to construct one other algorithm targeted on newborns. They’ve stated they monitor their danger scoring device intently and replace it over time, together with eradicating variables akin to welfare advantages and delivery information.

Vaithianathan and Putnam-Hornstein declined the AP’s repeated interview requests to debate how they select the precise knowledge that powers their fashions. However in a 2017 report, they detailed the strategies used to construct the primary model of Allegheny’s device, together with a footnote that described a statistical cutoff as “quite arbitrary however primarily based on trial and error.”

“This footnote refers to our exploration of greater than 800 options from Allegheny’s knowledge warehouse greater than 5 years in the past,” the builders stated by e mail.

That strategy is borne out of their design selections, which differ from county to county.

In the identical 2017 report, the builders acknowledged that utilizing race knowledge didn’t substantively enhance the mannequin’s accuracy, however they continued to check it in Douglas County, Colorado, although they in the end opted in opposition to together with it in that mannequin. To deal with group issues {that a} device may harden racial bias in Los Angeles County, the builders excluded individuals’s felony historical past, ZIP code and geographic indicators, however have continued to make use of these knowledge factors within the Pittsburgh space.

When requested concerning the inconsistencies, the builders pointed to their printed methodology paperwork.

“We element numerous metrics used to evaluate accuracy — whereas additionally detailing ‘exterior validations,’” the builders stated by way of e mail.

When Oregon’s Division of Human Providers constructed an algorithm impressed by Allegheny’s, it factored in a baby’s race because it predicted a household’s danger, and likewise utilized a “equity correction” to mitigate racial bias. Final June, the device was dropped completely as a result of fairness issues after an AP investigation in April revealed potential racial bias in such instruments.

Justice Division attorneys cited the identical AP story final fall when federal civil rights attorneys began inquiring about extra discrimination issues in Allegheny’s device, three sources informed the AP. They spoke on the situation of anonymity, saying the Justice Division requested them to not talk about the confidential conversations. Two stated additionally they feared skilled retaliation.


With no solutions on once they may get their daughter residence, the Hackneys’ lawyer in October filed a federal civil rights grievance on their behalf that questioned how the screening device was used of their case.

Over time, Allegheny’s device has tracked if family members have diagnoses for schizophrenia or temper issues. It’s additionally measured if dad and mom or different kids within the family have disabilities, by noting whether or not any relations acquired Supplemental Safety Revenue, a federal profit for individuals with disabilities. The county stated that it components in SSI funds partly as a result of kids with disabilities usually tend to be abused or uncared for.

The county additionally stated disabilities-aligned knowledge might be “predictive of the outcomes” and it “ought to come as no shock that oldsters with disabilities … may additionally have a necessity for extra helps and providers.” In an emailed assertion, the county added that elsewhere within the nation, social staff additionally draw on knowledge about psychological well being and different circumstances which will have an effect on a dad or mum’s skill to soundly care for a kid.

The Hackneys have been ordered to take parenting lessons and say they’ve been taxed by the entire baby welfare system’s calls for, together with IQ exams and downtown court docket hearings.

Folks with disabilities are overrepresented within the baby welfare system, but there’s no proof that they hurt their kids at larger charges, stated Traci LaLiberte, a College of Minnesota professional on baby welfare and disabilities.

Together with knowledge factors associated to disabilities in an algorithm is problematic as a result of it perpetuates historic biases within the system and it focuses on individuals’s physiological traits quite than conduct that social staff are introduced in to handle, LaLiberte stated.

The Los Angeles device weighs if any kids within the household have ever gotten particular training providers, have had prior developmental or psychological well being referrals or used medication to deal with psychological well being.

“This isn’t distinctive to caseworkers who use this device; it is not uncommon for caseworkers to think about these components when figuring out potential helps and providers,” the builders stated by e mail.

Earlier than algorithms had been in use, the kid welfare system had lengthy distrusted dad and mom with disabilities. Into the Nineteen Seventies, they had been frequently sterilized and institutionalized, LaLiberte stated. A landmark federal report in 2012 famous dad and mom with psychiatric or mental disabilities misplaced custody of their kids as a lot as 80 % of the time.

Throughout the U.S., it’s extraordinarily uncommon for any baby welfare companies to require disabilities coaching for social staff, LaLiberte’s analysis has discovered. The consequence: Mother and father with disabilities are sometimes judged by a system that doesn’t perceive the right way to assess their capability as caregivers, she stated.

The Hackneys skilled this firsthand. When a social employee requested Andrew Hackney how typically he fed the child, he answered actually: two instances a day. The employee appeared appalled, he stated, and scolded him, saying infants should eat extra often. He struggled to clarify that the woman’s mom, grandmother and aunt additionally took turns feeding her every day.


Officers in Allegheny County have stated that constructing AI into their processes helps them “make selections primarily based on as a lot info as potential,” and famous that the algorithm merely harnesses knowledge social staff can already entry.

That may embody decades-old information. The Pittsburgh-area device has tracked whether or not dad and mom had been ever on public advantages or had a historical past with the felony justice system — even when they had been minors on the time, or if it by no means resulted in fees or convictions.

The AP discovered these design selections can stack the deck in opposition to individuals who grew up in poverty, hardening historic inequities that persist within the knowledge, or in opposition to individuals with information within the juvenile or felony justice methods, lengthy after society has granted redemption. And critics say that algorithms can create a self-fulfilling prophecy by influencing which households are focused within the first place.

“These predictors have the impact of casting everlasting suspicion and provide no technique of recourse for households marked by these indicators,” in accordance with the evaluation from researchers on the ACLU and the nonprofit Human Rights Knowledge Evaluation Group. “They’re perpetually seen as riskier to their kids.”

As baby welfare algorithms change into extra frequent, dad and mom who’ve skilled social staff’ scrutiny concern the fashions gained’t allow them to escape their pasts, regardless of how outdated or irrelevant their earlier scrapes with the system could have been.

Charity Chandler-Cole, who serves on the Los Angeles County Fee for Kids and Households, is one among them. She landed in foster care as a teen after being arrested for shoplifting underwear for her youthful sister. Then as an grownup, she stated, social staff as soon as confirmed up at her house after somebody spuriously reported {that a} grand piano was thrown at her nephew who was dwelling at her residence — regardless that they didn’t personal such an instrument.

The native algorithm may tag her for her prior experiences in foster care and juvenile probation, in addition to the unfounded baby abuse allegation, Chandler-Cole says. She wonders if AI may additionally correctly assess that she was shortly cleared of any maltreatment issues, or that her nonviolent offense as a teen was legally expunged.

“A variety of these reviews lack frequent sense,” stated Chandler-Cole, now the mom of 4 and CEO of a corporation that works with the court docket system to assist kids in foster care. “You’re routinely placing us in these areas to be judged with these labels. It simply perpetuates extra hurt.”

Chandler-Cole’s fellow commissioner Wendy Garen, against this, argues “extra is best” and that by drawing on all accessible knowledge, danger scoring instruments will help make the company’s work extra thorough and efficient.


Whilst their fashions have come below scrutiny for his or her accuracy and equity, the builders have began new tasks with baby welfare companies in Northampton County, Pennsylvania, and Arapahoe County, Colorado. The states of California and Pennsylvania, in addition to New Zealand and Chile, have additionally requested them to do preliminary work.

And as phrase of their strategies has unfold lately, Vaithianathan has given lectures highlighting screening instruments in Colombia and Australia. She additionally lately suggested researchers in Denmark and officers within the United Arab Emirates on the right way to use expertise to focus on baby providers.

“Rhema is likely one of the world leaders and her analysis will help to form the talk in Denmark,” a Danish researcher stated on LinkedIn final 12 months, relating to Vaithianathan’s advisory function associated to a neighborhood baby welfare device that was being piloted.

Final 12 months, the U.S. Division of Well being and Human Providers funded a nationwide examine, co-authored by Vaithianathan and Putnam-Hornstein, that concluded that their total strategy in Allegheny might be a mannequin for different locations.

HHS’ Administration for Kids and Households spokeswoman Debra Johnson declined to say whether or not the Justice Division’s probe would affect her company’s future assist for an AI-driven strategy to baby welfare.

Particularly as budgets tighten, cash-strapped companies are determined to search out extra environment friendly methods for social staff to give attention to kids who actually want safety. At a 2021 panel, Putnam-Hornstein acknowledged that “the general screen-in charge remained completely flat” in Allegheny since their device had been carried out.

In the meantime, foster care and the separation of households can have lifelong developmental penalties for the kid.

A 2012 HHS examine discovered 95% of infants who’re reported to baby welfare companies undergo a couple of caregiver and family change throughout their time in foster care, instability that researchers famous can itself be a type of trauma.

The Hackneys’ daughter already has been positioned in two foster properties and has now spent greater than half of her quick life away from her dad and mom as they attempt to persuade social staff they’re worthy.

In the meantime, they are saying they’re working out of cash within the battle for his or her daughter. With barely sufficient left for meals from Andrew Hackney’s wages at a neighborhood grocery retailer, he needed to shut off his month-to-month cellphone service. They’re struggling to pay for the authorized charges and fuel cash wanted to attend appointments required of them.

In February, their daughter was identified with a dysfunction that may disrupt her sense of style, in accordance with Andrew Hackney’s lawyer, Robin Frank, who added that the woman has continued to wrestle to eat, even in foster care.

All they’ve for now are twice-weekly visits that final a number of hours earlier than she’s taken away once more. Lauren Hackney’s voice breaks as she worries her daughter could also be adopted and shortly overlook her family. They are saying they yearn to do what many dad and mom take without any consideration — put their baby to sleep at night time in her personal mattress.

“I actually wish to get my child again. I miss her, and particularly holding her. And naturally, I miss that little giggly chuckle,” Andrew Hackney stated, as his daughter sprang towards him with pleasure throughout a current go to. “It hurts lots. You don’t have any concept how dangerous.”


Burke reported from San Francisco. Related Press video journalist Jessie Wardarski and photojournalist Maye-E Wong in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.


Comply with Sally Ho and Garance Burke on Twitter at @_sallyho and @garanceburke.


Contact AP’s international investigative staff at [email protected] or https://www.ap.org/ideas/

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