Can technology help prevent child welfare tragedies?

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Ron Rohde says his family’s pain is still palpable two months after the death of 12-year-old Ciara “CeCe” Meyer.

Ron was CeCe’s uncle by marriage.

“We have to cry every night now,” Rohde said with anguish. “We have to cry every night because we have no answers and we’ll never get CeCe back, never.”

Ciara Meyer
Ciara Meyer

The police report will tell you that CeCe was killed when a constable shot her father during an eviction gone wrong in Perry County. The bullet went through his arm into her chest. But the family sees another villain.

“CeCe’s death was caused because Children and Youth being incompetent,” Rohde insists.

Ciara’s family says they warned Children and Youth Services caseworkers about the instability of Ciara’s parents. Ron says Dauphin County CYS and Perry County CYS removed CeCe and sent her to her live with her grandmother. But both counties, ultimately, sent her back to live with her parents.

“I would think that a caseworker’s job is to check weekly, or whatever, because that’s what your job is, to protect this child,” he said. “You put her back so you better check to make sure this girl’s safe.”

Pennsylvania spends billions of dollars a year on child welfare. The individual counties spend tens of millions more. But CeCe and other high-profile Midstate tragedies in recent years prove that humans err. Perhaps, technology can help.

“It’s not the tool, but it should be a tool,” said Will Jones of SAS, a North Carolina analytics company that’s developed a computer program to help caseworkers quantify the risk factors in a given family to better identify high-risk households.

“It makes them (caseworkers) better informed with what’s going on with the kids in their caseload,” Jones said. “With better information, it increases the ability to make better-informed decisions that alone will save lives.”

SAS is already doing child welfare work in Florida, North Carolina, and Los Angeles County.

Jones was in Harrisburg recently pitching both the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services and Dauphin County on the product. Human Services Secretary Ted Dallas wouldn’t endorse SAS’s program specifically, but he’s an enthusiastic supporter of the concept.

“It’s a little like fishing in the ocean,” Dallas said. “You don’t know exactly where to look and there’s a lot of places to look and you spend a lot of time pursuing things that don’t amount to anything. By using data analytics and being a little smart about it, analyzing data and trends, you can narrow down where you’re looking in the ocean to where the fish are. You’ll be able to spot those trends. And when you do have human beings go and investigate, it’s much more likely they’ll find something when they go there.”

Jones said once the data is inputted, efficiencies increase. He said caseworkers can then spend more time with people and less on paperwork. And no, he says, computer programs will not replace humans when it comes to child welfare.

“We’re not trying to replace institutional knowledge, if present, or decision making,” Jones said. “We’re trying to help inform decision-making so the right decision can be made at the right time for the right child.”

But the wrong decisions were made in Ciara’s case, her family insists, and though Ron is all for programs that can help, he says it’ll take a lot more than software to fix a flawed system.

“How do you correct things when you don’t even want to admit that you got something wrong?” Rohde asked. “How do you correct it? Nobody’s said anything to us. Nobody’s said, ‘we’re sorry.’ I don’t want a sorry. I want to know where you dropped the ball? I want answers.”

Jones estimates the SAS program would cost $2.5-$5 million for an initial three-year contract to get the system up and running. Typically, that’s a lot of money, but it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the mammoth amounts of cash poured into child welfare at the federal, state and county level each year.

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