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Can AI predict child abuse? This county says yes.

Plus, today’s the last day to register to vote in May’s primary.


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Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
May 2, 2022
AI enforcement, registration day, ballot battle, dialing 988, legal barriers, new charges, and The Great Grocer in the Sky. Hello! It's Monday.
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An algorithm is being used to guide child welfare investigations in Allegheny County, giving the technology an outsize role in a decision-making process with real-world consequences for often impoverished families.

According to an AP investigation, the tool uses information collected from birth, Medicaid, substance use, mental health, jail and probation records, and other government-held data sets to predict the likelihood that a child will need to be removed from their home in the future

When the county receives a call alleging mistreatment of a child, relevant names are run through the algorithm, which calculates a risk score that guides county employees in deciding which calls to investigate further. 

The county says social workers can always override the assessments, which the county says proved to be 70% accurate in the first years of use.

But critics are raising concerns about glitches, racial disparities, and a lack of transparency as states and cities nationwide consider — and in some cases abort — plans to follow Allegheny County's lead.

THE CONTEXT: Allegheny County was the first jurisdiction in the U.S. or anywhere else to let a predictive-analytics algorithm weigh in on child welfare calls, the New York Times Magazine reported in 2018. 

The move came five years after two brothers died from injuries sustained in a North Versailles apartment fire. The boys, ages four and seven, were home alone while their mother worked. Five complaints had previously been lodged with the county saying the boys were often unsupervised.

None were fully investigated.

Supporters of Allegheny County's algorithm say in life-and-death situations, it's a valuable-if-not-definitive tool to safeguard children and do more with less as child welfare agencies nationwide cope with staffing issues.

Skeptics say the predictive technology can itself be unpredictable: For more than two years, Allegheny County screeners were sometimes given overestimated or underestimated risk assessments.

The county says the issue has since been corrected, but opponents see a flawed device with the potential to ensnare unsuspecting families. 

"Some people have called it a shakedown. [...] It has happened where you are only allowed to speak if you sponsor."

Nche Zama, a Republican candidate for governor, on some county-level party committees requiring candidates to pay to address members
» Your guide to the Democratic and GOP candidates for governor

» 5 takeaways from Spotlight PA's Republican gubernatorial debate

» A guide to the overlooked race for Pa. lieutenant governor

» Big donations to GOP guv hopefuls: Who gave and how much?

» Tell Spotlight PA what election coverage matters the most to you

Support Spotlight PA's public-service election and voting coverage now.
» PRIMARY PRIMER: Join us Thursday, May 5 at 6 p.m. via Zoom for a free Q&A on Pennsylvania's candidates for governor, how they plan to lead, and how to spot misinformation. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org
Bearing it all at the Chainsaw Carvers Rendezvous in Ridgway, Elk County, over the weekend, via PA Poster Don H. Have a pic to share? Send us your gems, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
DEADLINE DAY: Today is the last day to register to vote in the May 17 primary. You can do so here or confirm your registration status here. Mail ballots can be requested here by May 10, but the sooner the better. As for the rest: Spotlight PA has you covered with guides on how to cast your vote and who can vote. On Thursday, May 5 we're hosting a free virtual panel on who's running for governor, how they plan to lead Pennsylvania, and how to spot election misinformation.

DROP-OFF RULE: WLVR reports Democratic state lawmakers from the Lehigh Valley plan to introduce legislation allowing spouses and blood relatives to drop off mail ballots for each other, something that isn't allowed under state law now, as Gov. Tom Wolf highlighted firsthand in 2021. The announcement comes days after Lehigh County's Republican DA unveiled a zero-tolerance approach enforced by detectives at drop boxes. State officials are warning of a chilling effect. 

CRISIS CALLS: By July, telecommunications carriers in all states will be required to ensure that calls to 988 ring through to suicide prevention call centers, supplementing the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. But PublicSource reports a 99-cent monthly charge on Pennsylvania phone lines proposed by the Wolf administration as a means of sustaining the 988 initiative is encountering resistance from members of the General Assembly and the telecoms industry, too.

LONG HAUL: The DOJ has closed Pittsburgh's immigration court, citing "space and personnel limitations," WESA reports. That means people with open cases in western Pennsylvania and West Virginia will have to travel to Philadelphia for court appearances. Advocates worry that deportations will rise. There is a virtual option for people with cases already assigned to Pittsburgh, but it's unclear if the option will be afforded in future cases. Language and tech barriers are also an issue.

MORE CHARGES: Suspended Somerset County DA Jeffrey Thomas has been placed on house arrest after having his bond revoked in a sexual assault case that's slated for trial in September. Thomas was charged in two new criminal cases last week — one involving allegations of domestic violence, and the second involving claims that he rammed the vehicle of a witness in his sexual assault case and taunted the man in the early morning hours of March 31, per the Daily American.
SIGN STOP: A Butler County township is backtracking on an ordinance requiring permits for political signs placed on private property. TribLIVE reports Connoquenessing isn't enforcing the measure and is "likely to rewrite" it after the ACLU raised First Amendment concerns.

IN CUSTODY: Former Pennsylvania AG Kathleen Kane is in custody at Montgomery County Jail, where she served time in 2016 for leaking grand jury materials and lying about it under oath, the AP reports. Kane was arrested for DUI in Scranton last month, an alleged violation of her 2016 probation.

RACE DAY: Philly's Broad Street Run racers had a nice day for it on Sunday. Six hours west, downpours and clogged sewers did nothing to stop Pittsburgh Marathon runners or the roadside death metal bands that love them.

SALE STARTER: The former Country Cupboard Restaurant building, a longtime family dining spot in Lewisburg, is being eyed for purchase by a nearby hospital, which has no plans for it yet, per the Daily Item.

THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS: In Pennsylvania, the grocers are named Giant. In West Virginia, they are giant. Pittsburgh Orbit got up close and personal with The Great Grocer in the Sky in Unger, W.V. — land of the colossal.
Unscramble and send your answer to scrambler@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag.

This week's theme: Spring things
Friday's answer: Tactile

Congrats to our weekly winner: Kimberly S.

Congrats to our daily winners: Mike B., Craig W., Michelle T., Susan N.-Z., Bonnie R., Susan D., Irene R., Bruce B., Don H., Deb N., Kim C., Doris T., Becky C., John A., Elaine C., Heidi B., Dan W., Deb S., Jim A., George S., Ted W., Diane P., David S., Tish M., Jude M., Beth T., Elizabeth W., Marisa B., Nancy S., James B., Daniel M., Patricia R., Karen W., Suzanne O., Bill S., Dianne K., Mark C., David W., Eddy Z., Jill A.-S., Patricia M., Eugene M., Starr B., Vicki U., John H., John E., Michael K., Judith D., John P., William M., and William P.
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