Let’s take a trip into the near future. Just a couple of years.
Child Protective Services has just received a child maltreatment report concerning a father of five. With a few keystrokes, CPS workers find out the following about him:
He’s married, but the family lives in deep poverty. He has a criminal record, a misdemeanor conviction. He and his wife also had the children taken away from them; they were returned after six months.
These data immediately are entered into a computer programmed with the latest predictive analytics software. And quicker than you can say “danger, Will Robinson!” the computer warns CPS that this guy is high-risk.
When the caseworker gets to the home, she knows the risk score is high, so if she leaves those children at home and something goes wrong, she’ll have even more than usual to answer for.
No matter what the actual report – since in this new modern age of “pre-crime” making determinations based on what actually may have happened is so passe – those children are likely to be taken away, again.
So, now let’s return to the present and meet the family at the center of the actual case on which this hypothetical is based: In the hypothetical, I changed two things about this story. First, the story mentions no criminal charges, and, in fact, panhandling is illegal only in some parts of Houston. But predictive analytics tends not to factor in Anatole France’s famous observation that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
So had there been a criminal conviction, or even a charge, it almost certainly would have added to the risk score.
And second, I’m assuming Dennison and his wife actually will get their children back. In fact, there’s no telling what will happen, and the family is under the impression that CPS is pursuing termination of parental rights.
What we do know is that in the brave new world of predictive analytics, if Dennison’s children ever are returned, and if Dennison ever is reported again, the children are likely to be removed again. And, what with it then being the second time and all, they’re more likely to stay removed forever.
For now, the parents don’t know where their children are. But given that this is Texas foster care we’re talking about, odds are it’s nowhere good.
I can hear the predictive analytics evangelists now: “You don’t understand,” they’ll say. “We would just use this tool to help people like Dennison and his family.”
And yes, there are a very few enlightened child protective services agencies that would do that. But when Houston CPS encountered the Dennison family that’s not what they did. They did not offer emergency cash assistance. They did not offer assistance to Dennison to find another job, or train for a new one.
They took the children and ran. Just as Houston CPS did in another case, where they rushed to confuse poverty with neglect.
An algorithm won’t make these decisions any better. They’ll just make it easier to take the child and run.
While other parents play with their kids in this park this couple can only wonder where their 5 kids are right now.
“Just that thought it’s indescribable,” said father-of-5 Anthony Dennison.
In this document Child Protective Services states the reason for taking the couple’s children is “failure to provide a safe environment.”
Dennison says he’s between jobs.
On March 22 CPS was contacted after Dennison was seen standing at this intersection with a sign that read 'dad laid off anything’s a blessing'.
“Basically they were hanging out there while dad was trying to do what dad could do,” Dennison said.
Was he trying to use the kids to panhandle?
“No sir,” Dennison said. “I was out there by myself, the kids, and my wife were standing at the side in a safe secluded area.”
Anthony’s wife Rita Joshua also says the kids were not being used to panhandle but she says that’s the picture CPS painted in court.
Their oldest child is 8. Then they have a 2-year-old a 1-year-old and 6-week-old twins. All are now in CPS custody.
“It really hurts me I was breast feeding and they just took them away and they’re not trying to hear anything I have to say in court,” Joshua said.
The couple admits to having a hard time financially.They are living with relatives but say they are keeping a roof over their kids heads and keeping them fed and clothed. But that’s not good enough they say for CPS.
“Yea they want to terminate my parental rights,” said Joshua.
Although neither parent has been accused of mistreating the kids, and if CPS gets its way, they will never live with their parents or any relatives ever again.
“If I wasn’t a responsible parent I wouldn’t even feel so bad,” Dennison said. “But I know that I do the best I can every day to make sure they’re ok.”
Here’s all CPS would say to us about this case.
“The children were not returned to the parents because CPS believed they would not be safe with the parents and the judge agreed.”
The couple is scheduled to return to court in late May.