Child welfare algorithm faces Justice Department scrutiny

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The Justice Department has been scrutinizing a controversial artificial intelligence tool used by a Pittsburgh-area child protective services agency following concerns that the tool could lead to discrimination against families with disabilities, The Associated Press has learned.

The interest from federal civil rights attorneys comes after an AP investigation revealed potential bias and transparency issues surrounding the increasing use of algorithms within the troubled child welfare system in the U.S. While some see such opaque tools as a promising way to help overwhelmed social workers predict which children may face harm, others say their reliance on historical data risks automating past inequalities.

Several civil rights complaints were filed in the fall about the Allegheny Family Screening Tool, which is used to help social workers decide which families to investigate, AP has learned. The pioneering AI program is designed to assess a family’s risk level when they are reported for child welfare concerns in Allegheny County.

Two sources said that attorneys in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division cited the AP investigation when urging them to submit formal complaints detailing their concerns about how the algorithm could harden bias against people with disabilities, including families with mental health issues.

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