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Illinois Dumps George Sheldon's 'Failed' Predictive Analytics Program

December 7, 2017 - 6:00am
Beverly 'B.J.' Walker and George Sheldon
Beverly 'B.J.' Walker and George Sheldon

The last of the legacy George Sheldon hoped for at the Illinois Department of Children and Families (DCFS) crumbled this week when Sheldon's successor ended a Florida company's high-profile program meant to identify children at risk for serious injury or death.

"We are not doing the predictive analytics because it didn't seem to be predicting much," new DCFS Director Beverly "B.J." Walker told the Chicago Tribune. The story was reported in Wednesday morning's edition.

Sheldon, hired in 2015 to do something about the child deaths and other problems within the Illinois system, had made the $366,000 Rapid Safety Feedback program central to his reform plans.

But as Sheldon continued to staff his senior positions with a network of Florida cronies, and award lucrative contracts to Florida firms while snubbing Illinois competitors, the longtime Florida Democrat came under increasing fire.

Sheldon has been in Miami since early July, heading up the private adoption and child services agency, Our Kids. But his departure from Illinois didn't end the investigation into the mess the former DCFS director left behind.

Now a failure of the predictive analytics program is under scrutiny.

Said the Tribune, two Florida firms — the nonprofit Eckerd Connects and its for-profit partner, Mindshare Technology — mined electronic DCFS files and assigned a score of 1 to 100 to children who were the subject of an abuse allegation to the agency hotline. The algorithms rated the children's risk of being killed or severely injured during the next two years, according to DCFS public statements.

Caseworkers have testified they were alarmed and overwhelmed by alerts as thousands of children were rated as needing urgent protection. Says the newspaper, "More than 4,100 Illinois children were assigned a 90 percent or greater probability of death or injury, according to internal DCFS child-tracking data released to the Tribune under state public records laws."

Some 369 youngsters, all under age 9, got a 100 percent chance of death or serious injury in the next two years, the Tribune found. At the same time, high-profile child deaths kept cropping up with little warning from the predictive analytics software. 

Perhaps the most highly publicized case during Sheldon's tenure involves 17-month-old Semaj Crosby, one child who did not get a high-risk score. She was found dead under a couch in her Joliet Township home in April after at least 10 DCFS abuse investigations and an ongoing "intact family" care plan, the Tribune reported.

Then there was 22-month-old Itachi Boyle, who died a month after Semaj in Rock Island following eight DCFS mistreatment investigations into his home and similar "intact family" services, the Tribune found.

"Predictive analytics (wasn't) predicting any of the bad cases," Director Walker told the Tribune.

A May 2017 Tribune investigation found the arrangement with Eckerd was among a series of no-bid deals Sheldon gave to a circle of associates from his previous work in Florida as a child welfare official, lawyer and lobbyist. Sheldon left Illinois under a cloud a month later, and "a July joint report by the Office of Executive Inspector General and the DCFS inspector general concluded that Sheldon and DCFS committed mismanagement by classifying the Eckerd/Mindshare arrangement as a grant, instead of as a no-bid contract."

By doing so, the joint report said, "DCFS avoided state bidding transparency requirements, making it impossible to determine if Illinois could have obtained the same services from local companies at a lower cost, a requirement of the state's procurement code."

Sheldon never disconnected from the Sunshine State. He occupied positions as state representative, deputy attorney general for Central Florida, and secretary of the Department of Children and Families until 2011, when President Obama advanced him to the national stage as acting assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Tribune also reported Illinois paid an unexplainably exorbitant fee to a longtime Sheldon confidant, Christopher Pantaleon. Pantaleon, with whom Sheldon co-owns a rental home in Florida, was one of his first acts of business after arriving from Florida in February 2015. At that time Sheldon hired a Florida technology firm, Five Points Technology Group, that subcontracted with his friend for a $30,000 job. With Sheldon's approval, the initial subcontract was extended two years. In the end, Pantaleon walked away with $262,000 for 33 weeks of work.

Pantaleon also billed DCFS $17,774 for flights between Florida and Illinois, as well as for hotels, taxis and incidental expenses.

Then, Sheldon's top Cook County administrator, Jacquetta Colyer, resigned last month following a confidential state watchdog report that "alleged she failed to account for thousands of dollars in holiday gift cards donated to teenage state wards." Colyer -- also hired from among Sheldon's Florida friends, former aides and lobbyists -- failed to distribute or account for more than half of the 420 gift cards worth a total of at least $9,000 that were donated last year.

Sheldon, remember, is a longtime Florida Democrat. He occupied positions as state representative, deputy attorney general for Central Florida, and secretary of the Department of Children and Families until 2011, when President Obama advanced him to the national stage as acting assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Predictive analytics has its staunch supporters. Human services administrators worldwide  have tapped into the estimated $270 million state and federal government market for child welfare data collection and analysis. They claim, if it's possible to use big data to spotlight a child in trouble and intervene before a tragedy befalls, then doing so is government's moral obligation.

Eckerd Connects — which recently changed its name from Eckerd Kids — told the Tribune that variants of its Rapid Safety Feedback are used today by child welfare agencies in Ohio, Indiana, Maine, Louisiana, Tennessee, Connecticut and Oklahoma.

In its defense, Eckerd told the Tribune, "Front-line caseworkers should never get those raw scores, let alone make decisions based on them; the data instead should be reviewed by DCFS supervisors who are trained and coached by Eckerd to decide which cases need immediate attention and how to tackle them."

Even before arriving in Illinois, Sheldon had professional ties to both Eckerd and Mindshare.

He is quoted on Mindshare's website endorsing that company and its technology. And as head of Florida's child welfare agency, he worked closely with Eckerd, which runs child welfare programs in Hillsborough County under a $73 million Florida contract, using for-profit companies as subcontractors.

When Sheldon arrived in Illinois in 2015, he appointed Eckerd's Chief External Relations Officer Jody Grutza to a $125,000 senior DCFS position. While Grutza did not supervise the Eckerd contract, Sheldon put her in charge of overseeing other deals with Sheldon's Florida associates, including a Five Points Technology contract that paid $262,000 to Christopher Pantaleon, a longtime Sheldon aide with whom Sheldon owned Florida property, the Tribune revealed in a July report.

After a year in Illinois, Grutza returned to a top position with Eckerd in Florida.

Sheldon has repeatedly said it was smart to tap Florida experts he trusted from previous work as he hit the ground running in Illinois, and that the Eckerd/Mindshare partnership had a good national reputation well beyond Florida.

In contract papers submitted to Illinois DCFS, Eckerd described the "remarkable" accomplishments of its predictive analytics method, saying Eckerd had virtually eliminated abuse-related deaths of wards in Hillsborough County since 2012.

But no, Eckerd had no such accomplishment. The Tribune's report in May report found "at least five Hillsborough County children who died while under Eckerd's supervision in 2015 and 2016, including one whose foster mother faces pending first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse charges."

Eckerd said that four of those five fatalities were accidental deaths related to unsafe sleep or natural causes, and the alleged homicide involved a child in foster care who had not received a Rapid Safety Feedback assessment, the Tribune reported.

Despite her decision to end the failed predictive analysis program, Walker told the Tribune that Eckerd did provide useful case-analysis training that is currently being used by 15 agency staffers and three supervisors. This team is reviewing the roughly 2,700 cases of families receiving "intact family services" and prioritizing them to identify the highest-risk cases, Walker told the Tribune.

Reach Nancy Smith at sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith. Much of this story was provided courtesy of The Chicago Tribune.

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