NZ data tool can predict risk of child abuse
A data tool that can accurately identify children at risk of abuse is unlikely to ever be used in the way envisioned by
one of its architects.
AUT University Professor of Economics Rhema Vaithianathan and a team of researchers devised the predictive risk
modelling tool (later modified by the Ministry of Social Development), which uses data to identify newborn children with
a high risk of being maltreated.
“In human terms it is like walking through a maternity ward and identifying the one child in every five who has 10 times
the chance of being abused and maltreated as all the other children put together,” says Professor Vaithianathan.
The government has been considering the proposed tool since 2012 and in April the Ministry of Social Development
announced that it will test predictive risk modelling, but only as a way to enhance frontline decision-making about
cases of suspected child abuse.
This announcement equates to a ‘no’ for the proactive predictive model and the protection it could offer New Zealand
children, says Professor Vaithianathan.
“Predictive risk modelling may be used to enhance the decisions that Child Youth and Family makes on the frontline. But
that will be after abuse is suspected - worlds away from the proactive model the research team proposed which can
identify children at risk early - more than two years before it occurs - and can allow for preventative support and
Prof Vaithianathan says while she is disappointed at the government’s cautious approach she is not surprised by it.
“There is no question that the tool has potential; it is fast, free to run and accurate. But no one in the world is
willing to do this (use predictive risk modelling in a proactive way), for fear of getting into risky political and
ethical territory. In New Zealand, and worldwide, there is reluctance to roll out tools like this, because of community
concerns around ethics and the ideas of ‘big brother’ and stigmatisation.”
“We shouldn’t resile from the problems we face around maltreatment of children in New Zealand or from radical solutions
like this that would allow resources to be targeted accurately. The social service sector in NZ needs a data-driven,
evidence-based revolution. We are still tinkering at the edges and children are the losers.”