It’s been three years, but Wanda Marino still can’t tell the story without tears in her eyes.
It was a beautiful Sunday morning in New Hanover County, a tiny but populous area on the southern coast of North Carolina. A 30-year-old mother, sky-high on opioids, buckled in her infant son and three-year-old daughter and took off driving. The vehicle was seen swerving, and soon it was airborne, exploding into flames as it smashed into a tree at 60 miles per hour.
Witnesses rushed to the scene, dragging the mother and daughter from the burning wreckage. But despite their best efforts, rescuers were unable to pull the boy from his car seat before flames engulfed the car.
Marino, who was then Assistant Director for the New Hanover County Department of Social Services (DSS), was quick to arrive on scene and devastated to learn of the child’s death. Her anguish only intensified when she later discovered the mother had lost her license in the past year, information that might have saved the boy’s life had SAS® Visual Investigator been implemented at that time.
“Had we received an alert on this case, we could have gone into that home and saved these kids,” says Marino. “This is how important it is to have information quickly.”
Child abuse linked to opioid epidemic
Sadly, what happened that day was not an isolated incident. Wilmington, the largest city in New Hanover County, has the highest opioid abuse rate in America. And children are paying the price. The number of children taken into permanent custody because of opioids has doubled in the county since 2013. Opioids now account for nearly 30 percent of interventions by the DSS.
Things reached a head in 2016 – the year the car accident occurred – when more than 4,300 children were subjects of maltreatment reports. Today, that number remains remarkably high, with 300 cases of child abuse or neglect reported to the county each month.
“The intersection of opioid abuse and child abuse is threatening to overwhelm the system,” says Marino. “Caseworkers, investigators and law enforcement must be able to understand the data to intervene quickly and break this tragic cycle.”
New Hanover County – Facts & Figures
abuse and neglect cases
program of its kind
in North Carolina
Analytics pilot brings hope
Haunted by memories of the crash, Marino took matters into her own hands. She caught wind of a pilot project to address child abuse with predictive analytics, and soon negotiated a collaboration between the county, SAS and the Duke Endowment – which donated $800,000 to fund the project – to bring the new SAS child safety platform to New Hanover County.
The cloud-based platform is anchored by SAS Visual Investigator, a solution commonly used by fraud departments to detect anomalies and streamline investigations. The solution is similarly effective in New Hanover County, where caseworkers are alerted to relevant changes to risks affecting children in their care.
“At a time when we don’t have a second to spare, this solution is providing vital information in assessing risk and saving lives,” says Marino.
The technology represents a significant change in efficiency for the county. Previously, if caseworkers wanted to monitor changing risk factors such as arrests or 911 calls, they had to do so manually. The manual process involved checking the “mugshots” website daily, entering each individual address of concern into the CAD computer system, and wading through stacks of paper and 20 years of case data.
Now, by combining data across local sources and applying analytics-based risk scoring, caseworkers have a centralized system to reassess risk on a daily basis and uncover hidden connections between people, events and places within seconds – critical time savings when lives are at stake.
When I see a happy and healthy child as a result of this program, there’s no better feeling in life. Wanda Marino Assistant Director New Hanover County Department of Social Services
Alerts turn insight into action
Alerts are the linchpin of the platform. Each morning, caseworkers could receive alerts detailing changing conditions for children in their watch. Each alert is given consideration based on risk factors such as case history, circumstances triggering the alert and the reported source. The social worker and supervisor then determine appropriate responses to the alert.
All alerts are sent to both social workers and their supervisors. Since caseworkers aren’t always in the office, supervisors can track alerts via e mail to ensure no incident slips through the cracks.
New Hanover County values alerts because they enable busy caseworkers to act immediately if there is an incident of heightened risk on one of their cases. SAS Visual Investigator makes it easy for employees to grasp what triggered an alert, drill into the case for details and determine what interventions may be necessary.
“SAS gives us the ability to quickly look at family history of reports on abuse and neglect on a timeline,” says Brian Bocnuk, Program Manager for New Hanover County Child Protective Services. “This high-level overview is very useful because it previously took hours to do this research. Now we’re able to hover over chronological events and see an overview of family history in real time.” These time savings add up to give case workers more time to spend on cases with the highest priority.
A model for other counties
Reducing child harm is the top priority for the department, and keeping families together is always a goal. Yet other benefits have emerged. DSS expects to lower paid placements in homes and residential treatment centers, and increase the rate of “permanency” – a permanent home for the child. To the department, it equates to an estimated $1.1 million in savings each year; to some kids, it’s priceless.
Marino says at-risk children are the real beneficiaries. “The SAS partnership has been monumental. It’s been the one thing that has helped us to move forward and prevent child abuse in a timely manner, and also to save lives of children.”
The pilot is the first of its kind in the state. Encouraged by early success, the Duke Endowment recently pledged another $400,000 to expand the program and link it to a new statewide case management system, opening the door for wide sweeping benefits across North Carolina.
“My biggest dream is to continue the partnership with SAS and to ensure the pilot reaches its full potential, not only in New Hanover County but statewide,” says Marino. “When I see a happy and healthy child as a result of this program, there’s no better feeling in life.”