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This New Software Could Help Target Potential Child Abusers

Image via Flickr/SAM Nasim (CC BY 2.0)

From Texas Standard:

Each day in the United States, four to five children die due to child abuse and neglect. That number comes out to about 1,500 children each year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and experts say many more cases go unreported.

To combat this loss of life, researchers at Cook Children's Hospital in Fort Worth have developed a way to find those unreported cases and predict where they might occur next. The program, developed at Rutgers University in New Jersey, is a software that can map areas more prone child maltreatment. What's more, researchers are saying it's fast, cheap and accurate.


Dr. Dyann Daley is the executive director of the Center for the Prevention of Child Maltreatment at Cook Children’s and leads the project. She says the program, called risk terrain modeling, looks at the context in which a particular crime occurs. 

"We applied this technique, this tool, that was developed at Rutgers, to see if we look at risk factors that you can isolate down to an address level," Daley says. "If there are certain risk factors overlapping, is that the place where child abuse actually occurs? And it turns out that it is."

Daley says this type of modeling has been used in criminology and shows improved predictive capability. "It looks at the context in which a certain crime occurs and it will determine not only the location where the crime you're looking for is most likely to occur, but which risk factor is most likely to correlate to that particular outcome," she says. "It will tell you not only where a crime will occur, but also what is the most significant contributing factor to that crime."

Cook Children's used the program to look at a number of contextual risk factors, including crime and poverty. 

"What we found is that if you take just five of the factors for child maltreatment and look at where they occur geographically... we were able to predict where 98 percent of future child abuse cases would occur," Daley says. 

Critics have said in the police context that tools like this software tends to legitimize racial profiling and stereotyping of people of lower socioeconomic status. Daley says the researchers tried very hard not to introduce any element of race into the study. “However, we know that if there is disproportionality in the crime and poverty data, that it might overlap,” she says. “I will say that in the areas that we identified as being high-risk for child maltreatment, there's actually a mix of demographics.”

Daley says the project’s goal is not to identify people who are at risk of maltreating their children, but to identify communities in need of more services. “Are all of the prevention services that are available for child maltreatment being offered in these communities that are the highest risk?,” she says. “What we've found is that they're not.”

Daley says the project’s plan is to align prevention and education efforts in high-risk areas, so children can have a better support structure and “help prevent child abuse before it starts."

If you suspect incidents of child abuse, contact the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

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