For two weeks, the Hackneys’ infant daughter lay in a Pittsburgh hospital bed, dehydrated. Her parents seldom left her side, occasionally sleeping on the room’s fold-out sofa. When their daughter was moved to a rehabilitation center to restore her strength, they stayed with her around the clock. The 8-month-old eventually stopped refusing her bottles and started gaining weight once again.
The couple was baffled when child welfare officials arrived, accused them of neglect, and took their daughter away. They question if an artificial intelligence program used by the Allegheny County Department of Human Services to determine which children are at risk of being harmed singled them out because of their disabilities.
The United States Justice Department is asking the same question. The agency is looking into the county’s child welfare system to see if its powerful algorithm discriminates against disabled people or other protected groups.
Lauren Hackney has ADHD, which affects her memory. Her husband, Andrew, has a comprehension disorder and nerve damage from a stroke he experienced in his twenties. The Hackneys are far from alone. Parents like Kaney O’Neill, who is quadriplegic, sometimes have to prove that they are fit to be a parent to have custody of their children.
Willie Horner-Johnson, an Oregon Health and Science University professor of public health, co-authored a new study on health disparities among pregnant, disabled people. Horner-Johnson and her colleagues found that more than 20% of all individuals who give birth in the United States identify as having a disability.
Child welfare algorithms use large amounts of public data regarding local families to input into complex statistical models to generate a risk score. The resulting number is then used to assist social workers in determining which families should be examined or require more attention.
Several local authorities have used AI technology when under pressure to make systemic changes, such as in Oregon during a foster care crisis and in Los Angeles County after a sequence of high-profile child deaths in one of the nation’s largest county child welfare systems.
Allegheny County has served as a real-world laboratory for testing AI-driven child welfare tools that crunch data about local families to predict which children are likely to face danger in their homes over the last six years. Today, child welfare agencies in at least 26 states and Washington, D.C., have considered using algorithmic tools, and jurisdictions in at least 11 have implemented them, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
As a woman with Cerebral Palsy, I’ve often thought about having children later in life. I wonder if society would deem me unfit for motherhood because of my Cerebral Palsy. An artificial intelligence program potentially being used to monitor me would overwhelm me as a parent, especially because Cerebral Palsy affects my movement and fine motor skills.
My biggest fear is that my child would resent the fact that they had a disabled mother. I wouldn’t be able to teach them how to swim or tie their shoes. I wouldn’t be able to pick them up if they fell or wanted a hug. Caring for a child involves much more than caring for their physical needs. I would do my best to help raise my child to be a happy, well-adjusted, kind citizen.
No one is unfit as a parent simply because they are disabled. I hope that if I have a child in the future, they will grow up knowing that their mother loves them and does the best she can. Regardless of whether society thinks I am fit to be a mother, all that would matter to me is that my child knows that they are loved unconditionally.
Brownstein, Joseph. “Quadriplegic Mother Fights for Custody of Son.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 22 Dec. 2009, https://abcnews.go.com/Health/MindMoodNews/quadraplegic-mother-fights-maintain-custody-son/story?id=9403163.
Donnelly-DeRoven, Clarissa. “1 In 5 Births Nationwide Are to People with Disabilities, But These Patients Don’t Always Get the Care They Need.” North Carolina Health News, North Carolina Press Association, 25 Oct. 2022, https://www.northcarolinahealthnews.org/2022/10/25/1-in-5-births-nationwide-are-to-people-with-disabilities/.
Ho, Sally, and Garance Burke. “Here’s How an AI Tool May Flag Parents with Disabilities.” AP NEWS, Associated Press, 15 Mar. 2023, https://apnews.com/article/child-protective-services-algorithms-artificial-intelligence-disability-02469a9ad3ed3e9a31ddae68838bc76e.