Black Excellence

Science Can End Child Abuse. Here is How.


On Father’s Day 2017, little baby Nyla Lewis  was beaten beyond recognition by her 18 year old father, because he’d told Nyla’s 17 year old mother that he’d wanted her to have an abortion. After 5 days in a coma, she died from her injuries. Two weeks before that, two toddlers died after being locked in a car for over 15 hours in Texas. What are we doing about this? Clearly, child abuse isn’t getting any less devastating.

Nylah Lewis

Casebook, created in part by Art Chang and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, is software to help caseworkers deal with child welfare cases. Available nationwide since 2012, it allows real-time information flows, fosters collaboration and automated alarms when warning signs happen. An outstanding resource, right? Many states and cities still don’t use it because of cost-cutting measures.

One place openly averse to this potentially child-saving tech is New York City. Even when faced with the gruesome death of Zymere Perkins, a six year old Harlem boy beaten to death then hung in the bathroom by his t-shirt by his mother. Something Mr. Chang says is unforgivable.

Zymere Perkins
Zymere Perkins (l.) and Amir Cooley eating ice cream in the spring of 2015. (BREE COATES)

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Says Chang, on the software’s ability to point out warning signs: “[Casebook] could have done the same when Zymere’s social workers reported bruises, when he failed to enroll in first grade and when neighbors called police.” The failure of local and state governments has already started holding back progress, progress that can save lives. The city’s Administration for Children’s Services still doesn’t use it. Despite the fact that some federal funds will cover the software, welfare leaders like Gladys Carrión of ACS, have stonewalled technology modernization, even in the face of strong support from her own staff, and even more tragic deaths like those of Zymere and Nyla Lewis.

One sad, clearly defined pattern seen in these cases is that more often than not, we hear about the deaths of the kids at the same time we hear they were being abused, or, after a long string of sexual abuse to multiple children. Children who experience child abuse & neglect are about 9 times more likely to become involved in criminal activity. Which is why it’d be great if these crimes could be prevented before they happened. But that’s fantasy, right? If so, they’re doing the impossible in Texas.

Doctors at Cook Childrens Medical Center in Fort Worth have been experimenting with predictive analytics, or “big data,” to predict neighborhoods where kids are most likely to be abused. Dyann Daley, a pediatric anesthesiologist at the hospital, jumped at the chance to use this tool. “This technology,” said Daley, “has been used to predict where shootings would occur and other types of violent crimes, but no one had applied it to domestic violence, like child maltreatment before.”

So, how does it work? According to the SAS website: “Predictive models use known results to develop (or train) a model that can be used to predict values for different or new data. Modeling provides results in the form of predictions that represent a probability of the target variable based on estimated significance from a set of input variables.” Well, what does that mean? In the case of Daley and her crew, that translates to collecting data on poverty, aggravated assault, and domestic violence. Then, using that data to compile and crunch numbers with free predictive software donated by Rutgers, a forecast is generated for likely places new child abuse cases will show up. This is called Risk Terrain Modelling.

Said Daley: “We were able to capture 98% of the cases that occurred in the future.” It may sound very Minority Report-ish, but I’d love to give it a go, for the sake of children.

One thing does strike me as problematic: might it be possible to profile too often, to people who may end up being innocent in the first place? Although child abuse crosses all socioeconomic and educational levels, there’s a strong correlation between social and economic standing and the potential for child abuse. The poorer the family, the more likely the child will be left unattended, maltreated, or otherwise neglected. In many cases, that can single out black families, whether or not the potential for abuse is real. Work will need to be done, but a start is a start, no matter where it ends or begins, at least it’s in motion.

Another difficult hurdle to overcome is that of talking about details of mistreatment, which can be devastating, especially for a child. Victims can be highly reticent to talking to another person, therapist or otherwise. But what about talking to robots? A Mississippi State University team decided to think outside the box with this one…way outside.Zymere Perkins

Cindy Bethel and Zach Henkel think a major breakthrough can be made by simply taking the “human factor” out of the process of interviewing battered children. It may sound a little callous, but it actually breaks down into letting kids be themselves without the additional pressure of making them say what the interviewer wants to hear. Memory is a fickle thing in and of itself, and memories can become even more distorted if a person is put on the spot.

“The techniques are not perfect, because humans are not perfect,” said Bethel. According to her and Henkel, the robot could be controlled manually, enabling the operator to be outside the room without worrying about the delivery of questions or answers. Even the slightest shift in posture, or the wrong body language can set off an interviewee, making things awkward, or making it so that the interviewer has to adapt and improvise for the occasion. But not with robots.

Bethel said “Robots will always follow the procedure, no matter the situation.”

And there have been positive results from studies. In one study, children were more willing to speak to a robot than a human. However, some critics feel that speaking to inanimate objects can lead children into fairytale play, treating their robot interviewer as one of their dolls they’d like to have tea with. But it’s a place to start, which is more of a push forward than a slide backward, I feel. My first few years of child therapy, I would have loved to talk to something that couldn’t talk back. Humans can be awfully judgmental.

Part of that judgement really shows up online, and can be life shattering for many kids and teens. The Internet has become arguably the greatest piece of tech in the last 10 years, and Facebook is a huge pit stop for most people before work or before bed.

Believe it or not, Facebook is one of over a dozen apps that teens are using to connect with the world. Apps like GroupMe and Kik are highly popular with teens, however, they are also hotbeds for predators looking for fresh meat, and they don’t require permission or supervision from parents. These sites allow kids to meet new people in their areas and around the world, talk and text with strangers about their feelings of loneliness and depression, and, most scary of all, share explicit videos and images of themselves to potentially grown men willing to take advantage of their naiveté and vulnerability, as in the case of the slain 13 year old, Nicole Lovell. And many parents are completely unaware that their child is using these apps because they don’t require parental permission. I’ve looked at the Tips for Parents section on the site, but all of the FAQs are for parents who either know their kids’ passwords or have open-access to a youngster’s phone. And although online predators are getting smarter, tech is growing smarter than them each day. Tech just like Photo DNA.

Something that will be crucial in the near future is Photo DNA. All images have “fingerprints,” unique identifiers specific to each photo that, even when altered, can be pieced back together to reconstruct their original composition. Photo DNA starts with a tagged image of a known sexual predator. It converts or “hashes” it into a black-and-white image, divides it into smaller squares and assigns numbers to each of these smaller images; hash values of known tagged images can then be compared with other known images to identify copies, because even if the image was altered at some point, the hash code remains the same.

In a video, special agent Jim Cole of the Victim Identification at the Homeland Security Investigations Cyber Crimes Center, shows how he tracked down and caught a predator who had placed his child victim on a counter to perform a devious act.

Even more impressive, the perpetrator’s fingerprints are visible in the image, and with this new technology, Cole’s team was also able to successfully scan and lift the ridges of his fingerprints for a positive ID. “That was the first time we were able to do that,” Cole said. The evidence was so strong that it was enough to put the perp behind bars for 110 years. His 14 victims were also later rescued.

I was in awe of, and gained a massive respect for, Ashton Kutcher earlier this year during his speech to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February. His project, Thorn, is a collaborative effort that not only works closely with government agencies like the FBI and Department of Homeland Security to research numbers of victims of abuse and to hack computers of potential pedophiles, but also makes software to fight sexual predators and traffickers of child sex slaves.

Said Kutcher, near tears, in a now-viral video of his speech: “I’ve seen video content of a child that’s the same age as mine [2 years old] being raped by an American man that was a sex tourist in Cambodia. This child was so conditioned by her environment that she thought she was engaging in play.”

If that idea, that image, doesn’t spread the importance of intervention, the vigilance into monitoring and protecting children from abuse, there’s little else that will. I cried watching his touching speech as well, not just because my heart plummets every time a child is hurt, but also because I endured abuse as a kid.

In 1997, I attacked my mother’s boyfriend with a sledgehammer. To a black kid from Chicago who’d become fed up with being slammed into walls, slapped and punched, tossed across rooms, and locked in bathrooms, there were few options for escape. At 10 years old, I’d tried to kill this man, who was in his mid-30s, because I couldn’t find another way out.

I failed. After a brief struggle, I ended up waiting for the ambulance and the police to arrive, surrounded by shards of broken glass and my own blood. But I survived. I’d been fortunate, and life was about to get a lot better for me.

My story had a happy ending, of course. After being rescued from the abusive clutches of my mother and her boyfriend, my father and his wife (who is more of a mother to me than my actual mother ever could have been) gained full custody of me. I started school in the 6th grade, despite the fact that I had never gone to class a day in my life before that, graduated to Jr. High and by the time I was in the 8th grade, I was on the Honor Roll. I completed high school on time, joined the military, and managed to become a well-adjusted human being. My life turned out for the better. 20 years later, here I am. Lucky. And I feel that more can have that same luck, which is why the science behind these very important tools of tech are necessary. I’m sick of seeing children get murdered when I know that I made it out.

The technology is out there…and it doesn’t take a scientist to recognize we need it.


Alex Miller

Alex Miller is a freelance writer living in Harlem. His work has appeared in Forbes, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other places.