Do I need a cop? Aye, that is the question

Do I need a cop? Aye, that is the question

Summary: One of the odd things about the operation of the social welfare system is that somebody, somewhere, in at least one arm of the total system - justice, wellfare, immigration, mental health services -somebody knows what the social worker needs to know. Did Joe, a violent career criminal from anothercity, announce his intention of living with his sister -and twin three year olds- to an outreach workerat the John Howard Society's halfway house? Somebody somewhere in the system knows, but the case workerdoesn't.

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TOPICS: Browser
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Quite a lot of children, in both Canada and the United States, live with parental or other caregivers who give priority to needs other than those of the children involved. The child care worker plays a critical role in the legal and social support systems that have evolved in response. In particular, it is the child care worker who visits an at-risk child's home to determine whether state intervention is required to protect the child from his or her caregiver or caregivers.

I've done a lot of work with one such organization in Canada and every field worker I've talked to has had the same problem. To understand it, bear in mind that files last 20 years or more, burnout rates among staff are high, and the highest risk caregivers are also the ones most likely to move, or have people move in with them, without notice.

What happens more often than not is that what should be a safe home for the child, and therefore for the child care worker, becomes dangerous because someone not mentioned in the case worker's file either enters or leaves the caregiver's life. In the movie stereotype, this is usually a hulking ex-boyfriend out on parole, but in real life good people forced to deal with relationship changes also fall prey to cultural traditions, drugs, alcoholism, religion, or simply become unable to function for reasons we can't readily identify but might as well classify as accumulated stress fatigue.

No matter what the cause, however, family change occurs and can have negative consequences for the caregiver, the child, and the child care worker. As a result the first and most important concern in any caseworker's mind as she plans her "surprise" home visits is about whether or not she needs to request a police escort.

One of the odd things about the operation of the social welfare system is that somebody, somewhere, in at least one arm of the total system - justice, welfare, immigration, mental health services - somebody knows what the social worker needs to know. Did Joe, a violent career criminal from another city, announce his intention of living with his sister--and twin three-year-olds--to an outreach worker at the John Howard Society's halfway house? Somebody somewhere in the system knows, but the case worker doesn't.

Thus, information systems supporting child welfare workers should focus entirely on bringing the information held by those who know, to the attention of those who need to know -everything else, from compliance management to payment tracking, should be secondary and could be handled by clerks if need be.

Unfortunately, the data processing people who usually get charge of the design phase know how to do the secondary stuff, but not the primary stuff. As a result, every system I've seen (I've reviewed three in detail, another half dozen superficially) has been like the story of the drunk with the lost car keys. You know, the one who loses them in a dark area but searches for them under the streetlight, because that's where the light is? That's what these designs do -- and I'm pretty sure what the FBI virtual case file write-off both did and will do- they search where the light is, not where the keys are.

I've barely heard of "computational linguistics," and certainly not studied it, but it's a discipline that clearly has some of the right answers for this application. In practice, computational linguistics covers the art of using computers to link documents related by their information content rather than merely by the words they contain.

BRS search under SunOS 4.1 in 1988 offered both a free text search capability like Google's and a controlled vocabulary search like Yahoo's that required someone to tag the documents according to key index terms before storage. Both could, furthermore, be extended through the thesaurus facility -- thus a search for "Unix" would now hit documents containing "Linux", "BSD", and "Solaris" too.

What it couldn't do was develop and adapt its own thesaurus and document tags as new documents were added, map document connections to show holes in the data, find and prove connections where none were obvious before, or apply what amounts to a thesaurus for phrases rather than words to improve generic search quality. Some modern tools, however, can -- and should therefore be directly applicable to the problem.

Imagine a process under which everyone in the system dictates a few minutes of daily notes every day -focusing on the "he said, she said" of daily interaction with "clients" and contacts. Put this stuff in a central repository, process it using a "computational linguistics engine," and then give everyone access to it. With the right software, the caseworker would know what the outreach worker knew -- and she would be better off, the twins would be better off, and the overall system would work better.

Such software either exists now or soon will. For example, work shown off by Steve Green and some colleagues at Sun's recent laboratory open house looks like a very good fit for much of this --equally applicable whether the problem is cast as a child welfare worker trying to decide whether to ask for a police escort, or as an FBI field agent trying to clear up a hunch about a possible criminal or terrorist suspect.

Topic: Browser

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12 comments
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  • What about privacy?

    "Imagine a process under which everyone in the system dictates a few minutes of daily notes every day -focusing on the "he said, she said" of daily interaction with "clients" and contacts. Put this stuff in a central repository, process it using a "computational linguistics engine," and then give everyone access to it. With the right software, the caseworker would know what the outreach worker knew ? and she would be better off, the twins would be better off, and the overall system would work better."

    Are there any privacy issues involved? Any confidentiality issues?

    Carl Rapson
    rapson
    • Yes there are privacy, and primacy, issues here

      Yes there are issues of confidentiality and potential information abuses here. I think of these as ticking bombs: you have to handle them, but every once in a while one of them's going to blow up on you. In that sense I'm emotionally with the framers of the American Patriot Act: it's obvious overkill, but the physical threat dominates the political one.

      In Canada the legislation on this is murky, precedents unclear, and ideas like freedom of information are only weakly established and unevenly applied. I have seen reasonable people argue that all players in "the system" should have privileged information access -and I've never much support for maintaining "client" confidentiality if doing so could hinder a program objective.

      Here the real bottom line is that the press doesn't pay attention to principle unless doing so meets a political agenda and beyond (or as part of) that he who has money, makes the rules -meaning that lots of people talk a good game about privacy, but few government decisions are deflected by that type of concern.
      murph_z
  • Metadata

    In order to have an effective search, you need information ABOUT the data. Data about data is metadata. Obtaining metadata FROM the original data automagically - through a computer program - suffers from the same malady as AI. Its EASY for a human to pick out relevent facts, but its almost impossible for a computer program to do it.

    So the answer is - Human's need to provide the metadata. But this is akin to answering a questionaire for every document you create. Price to pay?
    Roger Ramjet
    • Used to be true, kinda still is, but not for long

      Check out that sunlabs reference in the blog - this is the kind of thing they're working on.
      murph_z
      • AI = Actually Impossible

        AI will NEVER succeed in achieving human-level intelligence. Once you accept this, then the next question becomes - how close will it get?

        You temper this question with "how much do I need", and then compare/contrast. If your public servant gets killed because the data was ONLY 75% complete, then are the AI results acceptable (extreme example of course)? And then there's the "delay" factor in updating the information. Is a 20 minute delay (like stock tickers) good enough, or will that worker get ambushed by an irate boyfriend leaving work 20 mins early?

        Maybe an answer could be to have the children "chipped" (RFID) and tracked. Computer modeling could sound a warning when certain events are detected (sudden loss of altitude, no movement for several minutes - sleeping or fallen and can't get up?). This would allow for more real-time responses! Case worker showing up and finding dead child wouldn't happen nearly as much with this scenario.
        Roger Ramjet
        • Not an AI application

          YOu'r epreaching to the converted here, but this
          isn't an AI application.
          murph_z
    • get some librarians to train artificial neural networks

      if you get a bunch of text, and get librarians to classify it, you then run a genetic algorithm "breeding" better Perceptrons by how they mimic the librarians classification process, you'll end up with high speed ANNs that can classify data.

      (just codify the text first eg: <OBJECT subject="Y" name="I"/><VERB tense="past" name="read"/><OBJECT subject="Y" name="book"><ADJECTIVE name="red/></OBJECT>
      and then convert the xml codified text to binary, then use the binary to train your perceptrons).

      Next seemingly impossible problem to solve please...
      hipparchus2000
  • Another Choicepoint? No, Please, No......

    So many issues exist, with privacy at the top of the list, that it is scary that companies like Choicepoint even exist - to sell your information with no **inkling** whether or not it is really accurate.

    It scares me in a Orwellian "shiver" kind of way that we'd purposefully create a system that could cause the kind of damage that is just starting to surface with personal data.
    nottheusual1
  • This technology sounds great...

    But I have to agree with Ramjet in my questioning whether it could work. Human cognizance and computer cognizance still have a vast gap between them.

    P.S. How does someone "fall prey" to religion? As a full time volunteer community social worker (6 yrs mid twenties) my experience was that when "at risk" families learn and then follow Bible principles their situation is greatly improved. Social workers paid by the state, on the other hand, may have built in prejudices amounting to bigotry, causing a targeting of specific groups - something that sadly gets replicated even in aside comments in articles like these.
    Kamikaze_Ohka
    • Not all religions are nice - and all have their fanatics

      People "fall victim" (and in retrospect I should have used other words) to religion by going overboard about it. For example, we had a case where the mother simply left her kids at home - for a week, in summer, by themselves, because she felt God called her to work at a church camp, No one there knew; and I believe all spoke well of her - but the kids only barely survived.
      murph_z
      • Fanatics and wing nuts...

        ...abound, but I've seen cases where children were taken from a solid, reliable, clean living parent solely based on their membership in what was viewed as a "fanatic" religion based on the case worker, and then the judge's, prejudicial views and stance. I don't think that in the case above you can really say the (obviously unstable) woman neglected her children due to her religion - rather she neglected them due to her instability, which showed itself up in her extreme actions.
        Kamikaze_Ohka
  • religion = a problem?

    I'm puzzled, when you say that "in real life good people forced to deal with relationship changes also fall prey to cultural traditions, drugs, alcoholism, religion, or simply become unable to function for reasons we can?t readily identify but might as well classify as accumulated stress fatigue" are you implying that religion is just as much a problem as drugs, alcoholism, etc.?
    Normally, religion is seen/intended as a way of countering such problems, at least when realting to normal (non-fundamentalist) Christianity.
    d.s.williams