Humming away in a brick building near the banks of Pittsburgh’s Monongahela River, two servers filled with personal data hold the potential to improve the lives of the state’s most vulnerable children.
Harnessing what’s on these servers would represent an ambitious use of big data, one that could possibly safeguard thousands of kids from abuse and neglect and transform a foster care system in need of help. But tapping into that data could come at a cost.
On March 9, 1994, police found a toddler in a hotel bed in suburban Pittsburgh. She had been dead for more than 24 hours. The 2-year-old, Shawntee Ford, had 52 injuries, including a bruise so deep and massive that a pathologist could only compare it to injuries suffered by fatal car crash victims. Her organs were lacerated and had hemorrhaged. Her tiny left wrist had snapped.
Her father, Maurice Booker Sr., had beaten his daughter to death because she cried, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette later reported. At his trial, Booker begged the state to kill him.
Just one month earlier, on Feb. 2, a family court judge in Pittsburgh had awarded Booker custody of his daughter, who was previously in foster care. But there was a critical oversight. County child welfare workers had never completed Booker’s background check nor had they provided records of his violent criminal history.
The child’s death had cascading effects on Allegheny County’s child protective services department. An investigation concluded that the county’s actions were partly responsible for the child’s murder. Meanwhile, Mary E. Freeland, Allegheny County Children and Youth Services director, resigned and moved to Florida. In 1996, a national search committee hired her replacement: Marc Cherna.
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