OPEN LETTER TO LOCAL AUTHORITIES DEVELOPING ALGORITHMS FOR “CHILD PROTECTION”

Today we have sent this OPEN LETTER TO LOCAL AUTHORITIES DEVELOPING ALGORITHMS FOR “CHILD PROTECTION” to Brent Council as well as Bristol, Hackney, Newham and Thurrock Councils

Brent Council,

Dear Cllr Mili Patel, Cabinet Member for Children’s Safeguarding, Early Help and Social Care,

We understand that Brent Council is one of five councils developing predictive analytic systems [algorithms] to be used for “child protection” – the others are Bristol, Hackney, Newham and Thurrock.  The media reports that at least 377,000 people’s data has been used, which may include: school attendance and exclusion, housing association repairs and arrears, police records on “antisocial behaviour”, and domestic violence.

You were quoted as saying: “We are trialling a tool which has the potential to be best practice in the sector and which we hope will help our social workers to make decisions during child protection investigations by providing them with further information about a child’s known circumstances.”

Questions we need answers to:

We would like to know who is to be subjected to this gathering of personal information? 
Is it targeted people or the whole population of the borough? 
What are the exact categories being created? 
Is it segregating and marking the population according to certain categories which have not been publicly agreed or even disclosed?
Are those whose information is being kept aware that they are the subject of these algorithms? 
Have they been consulted? 
Has the rest of population? 
Who is to check that the information is accurate? 
Who is to have access to it? 
Will all professional bodies and institutions, including the police, be able to access it?  Can companies and politicians access it? 
What are the implications for data protection?
What is the purpose of this automated “tool”? 
Is it aimed at keeping children with their families, or at fast tracking the taking of children into care and/or finding candidates for forced adoptions? 
Can it be used as evidence in law courts? 
Will it enable the reduction in the number of social workers and other child protection staff being employed? 
We understand that this programme is being developed by a private company.  How much money is the Council paying the company it has contracted to do this?
How much money is this local authority expected to make on selling this programme to other local authorities? 
It has been reported that local authorities will benefit from the government payments-by-results scheme according to how many families they “enlist”: what does this mean? 
What are families enlisted for? 
Are the families aware of this?
Can you say what your local authority actually spends on support for children and families to prevent children going into “care” (Section 17 of the 1989 Children Act) as opposed to what it spends taking and keeping children in “care” (which is supposed to be a last option), including institutional care, foster care, special guardianship and adoption procedures in the years 2015-16 and 2017-18?

Reasons for our concern

This seems like Big Brother on a grand scale.  We are very concerned that this “tool” can enable discriminatory profiling which can be used by all kinds of agencies to the detriment of individuals and families, codifying middle class prejudices about working class people or racist prejudices or gender prejudices…

We are also concerned that the information can be used to speed up the removal of children from their families.  Such separations can cause significant harm to children and lifelong trauma to both children and their families, but this is often barely considered by those charged with making these decisions and is rarely part of their training. 

Poverty is not neglect.  Yet it is impoverished families, especially single mother families, many of them families of colour and/or immigrant, which are singled out for investigation and child removal.  These children are discriminated against for the rest of their lives – not only in education, housing and employment, but the girls are often automatically judged to be “unfit” parents when they become mothers because they were once in “care”.

There seems to be a financial incentive for councils to use these algorithms.  The pressreports that the algorithm software can generate revenue for councils through the government’s Troubled Families payments-by-results scheme: £1,000 for each family the Council signs up to the programme, with a further payment of £800 when the family meets certain criteria.[1] Their intention is to work with up to 400,000 families by 2020, including under their “Improving Lives: Helping Workless Families” strategy.

The context for algorithms in “child protection” is that nationally there are more children “in care” now than at any time since 1985; the number has increased every year since 2008 and was 75,420 by 2018; one in five children are referred to children’s services (50% in poor areas) despite the proportion of identified cases of abuse by parents dropping from 24% to under 8%; mothers who are victims of domestic violence are more likely to have their children removed than to get the support they need to keep them; forced adoptions (90% without parental consent) are at their highest; the secrecy of the Family Court and cuts to legal aid for family cases make it harder for mothers to defend themselves and their children in court; women, especially single mothers and those who have a disability, have been the target of 86% of austerity and of Universal Credit.

We are aware that Local Authorities face an £800m funding shortfall for children’s social care and that spending on children’s services in the poorest areas has fallen six times as fast as in the most affluent.  Councils have cut funding for “early-intervention” services, aimed at preventing families ending up at the door of social services, by 40% on average.  A third of Children’s centres set up by the Labour government to support families with young children have closed since 2009.  At the same time millions are being spent to take and keep children in care and with foster carers, financing what has become a privatised industry – from the social workers it employs to the institutional and foster care where children are placed – whose primary interest is profit-making rather than child welfare.  It costs around £56k a year to look after a child in care.2

There is no national oversight of predictive analytics systems by central government, and councils do not seem to be seeking explicit consent for this kind of data processing.  This raises serious questions about social profiling of children and families, especially those on benefits and low incomes, including children of colour, and its effect on their lives and their futures.  It raises serious questions about data protection, consent and profiteering.

We look forward to hearing answers to our questions which we can disseminate to the public. 

Yours sincerely,

Nina Lopez and Anne Neale
Support not Separation

cc Emma Lewell-Buck MP, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell MP;
Dawn Butler MP (Brent Central), Barry Gardiner MP (Brent North), Tulip Siddiq MP (Hampstead & Kilburn),
Thangam Debbonaire MP (Bristol West), Darren Jones MP (Bristol North West), Kerry McCarthy MP (Bristol East), Karin Smyth MP (Bristol South), 
Diane Abbott MP (Hackney North & Stoke Newington), Meg Hillier MP (Hackney South & Shoreditch),
Lyn Brown MP (West Ham), Stephen Timms MP (East Ham),
Jackie Doyle-Price MP (Thurrock), Stephen Metcalfe MP (South Basildon & East Thurrock)