As the number of children on child protection plans and entering care has continued to rise, early help and intervention services, which have faced drastic funding cuts in recent years, are often seen as a path to preventing future pressures on these high-cost, high-risk services.
If a family can be engaged with services early, then work at that stage can prevent escalation that leads to family breakdowns and children entering care, so the theory goes.
In that spirit, Hackney council has partnered with tech company Xantura to develop an artificial intelligence (AI) computer programme they believe could help them support families with multiple needs earlier, in some cases even before they meet any statutory agency.
Steve Liddicott, head of service for children and young people at Hackney council, said the ‘Early Help Predictive System’ uses data from multiple sources to help identify families where extra support might be needed.
The overall purpose of the technology and analysis is to give the authority as much information as possible to help it decide whether a family needs support and begin as early as possible, whether that be through the Troubled Families programme, schools, education or children’s services.
After two years of testing the software, “we’re now getting to the stage where we are using it monthly to generate a list of between 10 and 20 families where we think there is evidence of future concern,” Liddicott says.
The AI takes data at an individual level, which is anonymised before it is processed, from the youth offending system, children’s social care, education and various other systems within the council, including housing.
It uses this data to look at areas such as debt, worklessness, benefits, housing, domestic violence, youth offending, anti-social behaviour, and school attendance to create a profile of need for families. This data, sent to Xantura anonymously, is then sent back to children’s services with different levels of priority according to the criteria, which then decides whether it should act and how.
“It is not necessarily sending a social worker around to see the family, it is about looking at how they could best utilise the support they are already getting,” Liddicott explains.
He says, for families already in contact with council agencies, the process could be about the children’s service getting in touch with the agency to let them know other areas where a family may need support, or how their situation might develop.
“In that testing period we’ve had to look at what the data sources are, whether they are giving us an accurate picture, and how the different risk factors are weighted in the system so it doesn’t give undue prominence to the wrong ones,” Liddicott adds.
The algorithm assigns different levels of priority to risks according to the presence or absence of other criteria it is analysing, Liddicott explains.
So far, the AI system has only been used to help the service identify needs of people currently involved with statutory agencies, but Liddicott explains there will be a point, once it becomes more sophisticated, when it could identify families with no history of interacting with the council.
It will then be up to the council and partner agencies to identify the most appropriate agency to contact the family.
The council is also looking to use the data sources to generate ‘snapshots’ of what is going on in certain families, which it hopes to use in how the service screens referrals going forward.
“That’s also going to be the basis of a pilot project on sharing information with general practitioners to assist them with making referrals to children’s social care, which they will be able to make through this system directly to our front door.”
The system is now up and running, and the council reports there have been early interventions triggered in response to alerts the new artificial intelligence has generated. Now it’s a waiting game to see whether this is the early help solution councils, and families, need.
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