It\’s the same old problem at heart

Bit of the Ben Goldacres here:

What don\’t usually make the news, however, are the hundreds of cases when the social workers\’ failure is the very opposite: where, aided by police and courts, they seem determined to remove children from responsible parents, to consign them to an often miserable life with foster carers or to adoption.

False positives and false negatives….whatever system you\’re going to use to do anything you need to make sure that you don\’t veer off into acting hugely on false positives just as you want to minimise the false negatives where you should do something but don\’t.

Unfortunately, it\’s the way of this particular universe that we inhabit that the two are intimately linked. You\’ll almost always get more false positives if you try to minimise false negatives. At which point there has to be a rather hard headed analysis of the costs and benefits of each.

Assume that the cost of a false negative, a child who should be taken into care but isn\’t (to be extreme, for of course not all children who should be in care or adopted are facing death…a shitty life perhaps, but not necessarily death) is death.

Assume that the cost of a false positive, a child taken into care or adoption who doesn\’t need to be, is a shitty life (might well not be a shitty life but this is just an assumption for our model) and heartbroken parents.

So, how many shitty lives and heartbroken parents do we think is worth not having a dead child? Ten to one? 100 to 1?

No, you cannot say \”infinite\” because that would mean that every child in the country should be taken into care to prevent Baby P.

And we are ignoring the point that life in care is often worse than what a child is being \”saved from\”.

But you do have to come up with some sort of calculus of how many people\’s lives you fuck up in order to prevent one death.

And the big problem here is that which afflicts all politically made decisions, the point that Bastiat made. We can see the results of false negatives but we don\’t see the results of false positives. One reason being, over and above the politics side, is the secrecy of the family court system. We\’re not actually allowed to see the results of the false positives….and therefore we can quite safely conclude that the system is erring to that side. If it wasn\’t, then they wouldn\’t insist upon being secretive, would they?

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