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State starts using big data for child protection

Hoping to use their vast stores of data to pinpoint which Texas children might be at greater risk of maltreatment, two large state agencies have teamed up to produce a targeted road map for the state’s next generation of child abuse and neglect prevention services. The project is the state’s first major foray into so-called predictive analytics, a relatively new approach to addressing child abuse that other states claim to have used with success.

In a series of stories published earlier this year, “Missed Signs, Fatal Consequences,” the American-Statesman identified the use of large databases for child protection as a strategy that Texas had been slow to adopt.

Combining information from the Department of Family and Protective Services’ child fatality reports with the Department of State Health Services’ birth certificate and health services data, the new study, released Tuesday, identified the San Antonio, Midland and Beaumont areas as having an unusually high number of children who died from neglect while sleeping. Dallas children experienced a statistically higher-than-expected chance of dying from being left in a hot automobile, and infants statewide who died in their sleep were more likely to have a parent who smoked during pregnancy.

The report is one of several changes that state agencies and lawmakers have implemented following the January investigative report, which revealed that Child Protective Services had failed to systematically analyze its child fatality data, potentially missing deadly patterns of abuse and neglect that could help protect Texas children.

The Statesman also found that between 2010 and 2014, the Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees CPS, didn’t publicly report 655 child abuse-related fatalities, even though the department confirmed that those children had been mistreated prior to their deaths. Currently, the law requires such public reporting only if the agency determines abuse or neglect was directly responsible for a child’s death.

In response, state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, last week filed a bill that would close that gap. The proposed law would require the agency to promptly release information not only on child fatalities in which the investigators determine that abuse or neglect caused the child’s death, but those involving a “critical injury that reasonably could have resulted in the child’s death.” The bill also would require the agency to include all such cases in its annual fatality report.

Madeline McClure, executive director of the Texas Association for the Protection of Children, said the information was crucial to a fuller understanding of the scope of the state’s child abuse and neglect. She noted, for example, that the instances in which a child who had died also had a previously confirmed instance of abuse or neglect had risen over the past year, raising questions about how well children’s service workers screen allegations.

“That’s the level of data we need to see what’s going on,” she said. “We’re glad this bill is going to give us more information. We’re still going to need more. But this is a start.”

McClure also praised the new study, saying it was a good first step in using data across agencies to paint a more accurate picture of how Texas children die. She pointed out that nearly half of all child and abuse fatalities had some previous contact with the agency.

“No matter the circumstances, the children who were known to the department and investigated but who subsequently died is the worst tragedy,” she said.

Sasha Rasco, the director of prevention and early intervention for the family services agency, said the study was just the first of many projects in which officials hoped to use data to better protect children. The report included recommendations of how best to use the new information to target child abuse in the affected communities.

“This is just a first round,” she said, adding the agency hoped it someday could produce county-by-county report cards on the success or vulnerable spots of local child protection efforts.

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