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Community Voices (Helms): A broken system and the value of a life

I recently watched the Netflix documentary, “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez,” that highlights the horrific case of an 8-year-old boy from California who was tortured over a course of months by his mother and her boyfriend. The brutal force applied to his body was the cause of his murder. Neighbors knew, the police knew, family and human services knew, teachers knew and still little Gabriel fell through the cracks of a flawed system.

The atrocities of this case resulted in a Blue Ribbon Commission being formed to look more closely at the systems in place and how they had failed. One of the findings was a lack of coordination and communication between agencies involved. The concern was how to improve the protection of children in the future more efficiently.

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In episode five of the series, Emily Putnam-Nornstein, associate professor at USC and director of the Children’s Data Network discusses the possibility of using an empirical approach by using an algorithm to calculate the historical data collected about at-risk families to determine which children may be at highest risk, saying, “What we are doing here is we are trying to predict future system involvement.”

Fear asks the question, should a machine decide the level of care? If another Gabriel Fernandez slips through the system, can a machine be held accountable? In this case, the people and the system were supposed to be protecting Gabriel, but instead a silence was created by agencies through atrocious actions such as falsifying records, inaction on reports being called in by mandated reporters and neglect that aided in losing an innocent life. Perhaps technology can create the necessary efficiency for intervening and saving more lives. Nornstein goes on to say, “People are more fearful of the new thing than they are of business as usual.” Technology is neither good nor bad. How it is used determines its value in society.

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Nornstein makes the case for focusing on agencies. “Let’s train an algorithm to identify which of those children fit a profile where the long arc risk would suggest future system involvement.” Again, this gathering of information can be a great tool or a great weapon when it comes to poor communities that don’t have many resources. Does the fear of machines that can determine risk faster and better than humans outweigh the fear of children continuing to be unprotected by a broken system? What value as a society do we put on the lives of children? Is the value of a life measured by what kind and how much legislation is on the books?

Another important point to this narrative is, how much responsibility do we place on agencies that are there for the protection of children without having in place a system of accountability to their own pattern of negligence, as illustrated in this California case? Who holds “the good guys” accountable? Do we rely on the ethics or lack of ethics of bureaucratic organizations made up of humans or do we put our faith in a computerized algorithm that perhaps involves a less-biased methodology? Although there is no situation that is completely bias-free, Nornstein says, “All of the data that I have worked with and have seen would suggest that these algorithms are unambiguously better than human judgment alone and are superior to tools that are currently being used.”

Our safety net for at-risk children is built on sinking sand when speaking out is not enough. The case of Gabriel is an example that reporting to agencies put in place to protect, is not always enough. Where is the justice in bureaucratic agencies that choose self- preservation, falsifying records, non- action, the bottom line and turning a blind eye? Where is the algorithm that keeps tabs on the protective agencies themselves? Is there enough legislation in place to hold agencies ethically accountable?

Another aspect of this tragic story is the irresponsible nature and lack of empathy of Gabriel’s mother and the boyfriend. Who are the responsible adults is one of the arguments in this particular scenario and what makes this case unique because the social workers themselves were brought before the court for the possibility of being charged. This is unprecedented. The amount and kind of neglect demonstrated by the social workers directly involved with Gabriel and the knowledge they had of his circumstances could not be ignored. When there is a child dead, there doesn’t seem to be any excuse that can be given convincingly enough not to hold the system accountable.

Emma Lazarus’ sonnet captures the spirit of the hope of a vulnerable child, like Gabriel, who needed a safe place. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ...” I would like to know the day when the life of a child is valued so highly that society is willing to invest resources, money, protection, provision and nurturing that lifts a “... lamp beside the golden door” for abused children. My only hope is that somewhere on another plane, Gabriel’s light is bright and breathing free.

Kat Helms writes fromTaneytown.

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