From predicting referral volumes in different locations to analysing case time statistics, actuarial tools can provide sound support to the child protection system in Australia. Julia Lessing and Abigail Marwick report.
At the recent Actuaries Summit, Abigail Marwick and I shared our experience using our actuarial skills in human services, specifically in child protection. We all know that traditionally, actuaries have used their skills in insurance and financial services, but that our skills are portable and can be applied in other industries.
When we talk about actuaries keeping children safe, we are certainly not suggesting that we are replacing the important roles of frontline workers such as caseworkers, doctors and Police. Rather, we’re referring to the work we’ve done using our actuarial training to provide analysis and insight to those professionals who are working directly with children, so they might be better informed and supported in keeping children safe.
What is child abuse and how does Australia respond?
Unfortunately, child abuse, specifically the physical, sexual, emotional abuse or neglect of children, occurs in Australian society. Each state has its own legislation and response system in place to identify and respond to child abuse that has occurred, and provide support to families where abuse is likely to occur. The risk of a child suffering abuse can be complex and may build over time, often overlaid with intergenerational effects and other disadvantage such as poverty and homelessness. Some of the known risk factors for child abuse include:
- Mental illness in the parents
- Domestic and family violence
- Substance abuse
- Poor parenting skills
Factors such as financial stress and family breakdown can also contribute to child abuse risk, especially when these exist with other risk factors.
The Australian child protection system comprises government and non-government service providers who deliver different services depending on the level of risk to the child.
Primary services are available to all Australians, e.g. Medicare provides free antenatal care for all Australian mums, which enables a minimum level of child protection care for all Australian babies.
Secondary services are available for families with specific risks and needs, e.g. parenting skills programs for young parents and anger management programs for parents with anger problems can help keep families together and provide a safe environment for children.
Once a child’s suspected risk of child abuse meets the statutory threshold, tertiary services are invoked and do not require parental permission. This can involve intensive family services to keep children safe at home, or if the risk of abuse is too high it may involve removal of the children and placement in state-funded care.
How can the actuarial skillset be applied in child protection?
There are many parallels between the operations of an insurance company and the child protection system. As such, many of the techniques and skills we are trained in as actuaries can be valuable in providing analysis and insight to support the child protection system.
For example, the claims management and reporting process is very similar to the process of receiving and responding to child abuse reports. Techniques used to prioritise and manage claims, as well as matching a suitably skilled and able workforce with the workload can be used effectively in child protection. Some of the tools used by child protection staff around the world are known as “actuarial tools”, which provide a statistical basis to support professional judgement in the triage and risk assessment of reported child abuse risk.
In addition, both insurers and government departments have to deliver services within their budgets. Health insurers know that providing preventative services (e.g. regular dental care, subsidised gym memberships etc) can reduce the future costs of claims. This “actuarial investment approach”, as referred to in the recent McClure Review and federal budget, can also be applied to child protection. Provision of early intervention services, such as parenting programs, can strengthen families and keep children safe, possibly reducing the need for children to be removed from their parent’s care and placed in government funded foster care. We know that children who are placed in foster care are also more likely to have health issues, be homeless as adults and even more likely to be incarcerated. These are not good outcomes for these children and contribute to additional costs to the government throughout their adult lives.
Examples of actuarial work in child protection
One area where we have used our actuarial skills in child protection was to model family risk factors for an Australian state to inform service delivery requirements. To do this, we researched key indicators of family stress, and built a predictive model for service demand, using information on child protection reports and estimated geographical prevalence of stress indicators. We used this model to predict future volumes of referrals in different geographical locations and worked with frontline staff to understand community trends and issues that were not observable in the data to enable a practical approach to the location of family support services.
Another area we have used our actuarial skills in child protection was to conduct analysis of current and possible caseloads for caseworkers in an Australian state. This involved a combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis of casework, including statistical analysis of case time estimates captured through caseworker surveys and analysis of case characteristics and the various operational considerations that were impacting casework time. This enabled a view of current and possible caseloads that were and could be carried by caseworkers under a range of scenarios to allow more informed decision making to occur regarding workforce planning.
What else could actuaries do?
Once you have an understanding of the child protection system and can see its parallels with an insurance or financial services environment in which we as actuaries are trained, you can start to see the applicability of the actuarial skillset to a range of challenges.
The recent budget announcement has specifically called out an investment in the “Actuarial Investment Approach” in relation to understanding the drivers of long term welfare dependency. This is an interesting area that will require actuarial modelling and valuation of welfare payments, as well as analysis to understand the interactions of various welfare payments with each other and with decision making behaviour of Australians.
Data linkage is another area that governments are exploring. Recent reviews of suspicious child deaths have suggested that if better information sharing between agencies occurred, a better picture would be available to more accurately identify and prioritise child abuse risk. This has been done internationally and I believe actuaries are well placed to contribute to this work.
How do I get involved?
Our presentation focussed on the work we’ve done in child protection, but this could be extended to other areas of human services (e.g. disability, public health, justice, homelessness, education etc). There are a number of options to work in this area. Child protection service providers (e.g. government departments and NGOs) need internal staff who can provide analysis and insight to their challenges. Alternatively, you can consult to providers and advisors of child protection services, including providing system level advice.
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