Current information

Since 2016, the Allegheny County Department of Human Services (DHS) in Pennsylvania has utilized the Allegheny Family Screening Tool (AFST), which assists child welfare call screening caseworkers in their assessment of general protective service (GPS) referrals regarding potential child maltreatment.

What is this report about?

This report reviews the research evidence on algorithms in child welfare, specifically focusing on the causal impacts of the AFST and comparable predictive risk models (PRMs). It begins by summarizing the influence of these tools on child welfare decisions. The report then explores the discrepancies between perceived and actual effects of these models, highlighting the importance of bridging the gap between perception and reality to alleviate concerns and maximize the effectiveness of these tools.

What are the takeaways?

The impacts of predictive risk models in child welfare must be compared with alternative approaches to augmenting call screening caseworker decision-making. Traditional risk assessments in child welfare have been largely manual, prone to inconsistencies, and often omit critical information. Before implementing the AFST, Allegheny County did not employ any structured risk assessment.

The main conclusions from recent research on the AFST are:

  • The AFST changed the composition of investigated referrals. The introduction of the AFST decreased the probability of investigation for referrals with low risk of removal and increased the probability of investigation among referrals with high risk of removal. The introduction of the AFST also reduced the racial gap in investigation rates, particularly among higher risk referrals.
  • The AFST is reducing, not increasing, racial disparities. Researchers found that the introduction of the model reduced racial disparities in investigation rates across AFST scores, although the size and precision of the reduction varied. The AFST reduced the racial disparity in investigation rates for the highest risk referrals by 83%, from 10.6% to 1.8%. The researchers estimated that the AFST reduced the Black–White gap in removal rates of screened-in referrals by 73%, from 4.3% to 1.2%.
  • Screeners use the algorithm but with caution. Researchers found that call screening case workers are integrating information from the AFST effectively, aligning their decisions more closely with predicted removal risk compared with the period before the tool’s introduction. The tool is seen as a helpful source of additional information rather than a replacement for professional judgment. 

How is this report being used?

The application of algorithms to support decision-making, especially in sensitive areas like child welfare, mandates high transparency. It is critical that the complexities of predictive risk models are communicated clearly to all stakeholders to maintain trust and prevent misuse. DHS is committed to keeping the public informed about the use and impact of algorithms at the Department and draw upon current research to shape the implementation of these tools in the field.

Read more about AFST here.

Community Need Index

Current dataset and related materials

What is the Community Need Index?

The Allegheny County Department of Human Services (DHS) conducts a Community Need Index (CNI) to identify specific areas that are in greater need, and face larger socioeconomic barriers, relative to others. The newest version of the CNI index ranks neighborhoods by need level by looking at:

  • The percentage of families who live below the poverty line
  • The percentage of unemployed or unattached males
  • The percentage of those aged 25 and up without at least a Bachelor’s degree
  • The percentage of single parent households
  • The percentage of households without internet access
  • Rate of homicide per 100,000 residents
  • Rate of fatal overdoses per 100,000 residents

The researchers used a census tract level to break up the region and assess needs. Census tracts are static, relatively small subdivisions of a county.

How can I view the findings?

An interactive map allows users to view and extract data from the 2024 CNI (which uses 2022 five-year data estimates and totals). The new report focuses on all of Allegheny County, examines changes in need over time, and places emphasis on the connection between race and community need. Earlier reports are linked below.

What are the takeaways?

  • In Allegheny County, we continue to find the highest levels of need in specific sections of the City of Pittsburgh (Hill District, South Hilltop, parts of the West End, Upper East End neighborhoods, Upper Northside) as well as census tracts outside the City of Pittsburgh (Mon Valley, sections of the Allegheny County River Valley, sections of Penn Hills, sections of Wilkinsburg, Stowe-Rocks).
  • There are vast discrepancies between the lowest need communities, which have an average poverty rate of 2%, and the highest need communities, where the average poverty rate is 38%.
  • With few exceptions, census tract-level community need is persistent over time.
  • Only about one-third of Allegheny County’s Black residents live in lower-need communities. For every other racial and ethnic group in the County, the majority of residents live in lower need communities. Black communities in Allegheny County have disproportionately high levels of need, as do a number of racially mixed communities. 
  • Poverty status alone does not account for where various racial and ethnic groups tend to live by level of need; poor Black and Latino families are more likely than other poor families to live in higher need communities. Even Black families above the poverty line are many times more likely than their Asian, White and Latino peers above the poverty line to live in higher need communities.

How is this report used?

The geographic dimensions of community need can help inform many aspects of DHS’s strategic planning and resource allocation decisions, such as decisions on where to locate Family Centers or new after-school programs.

Where can I go for more information?

For more information, you can read previous reports below. Or you can reach out to DHS-Research@alleghenycounty.us with any questions.

 


Previous reports in this series 

Previous datasets in this series

Current Plan and Related Documents

The Allegheny County Department of Human Services (DHS) partnered with Pittsburgh Regional Transit (PRT) to launch a new transportation assistance program in November 2022 called the Discounted Fares Pilot. This program offered free and reduced-price PRT rides for county residents ages 18 to 64 who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, along with their 6- to 17-year-old children. The fare discounts were allocated using a lottery. Each household in the pilot was randomly assigned to one of three groups, each with equal probability. One group received unlimited free PRT trips, a second group received a 50% discount on all PRT trips, and a third group received no discount. The fare discounts lasted for at least 12 months for the free-fare and half-fare groups.  

What is this report about?

This report first describes the results from the first year of the pilot.  It describes the design of the pilot, the characteristics of the participants and provides estimates of the causal impact of the fare discounts on travel behavior and health care utilization.  It also reports on impacts on self-reported outcomes related to employment, financial stability, and well-being.

What are the takeaways?

  • A total of 9,544 adults and 4,928 children enrolled in the Pilot during the three-month open enrollment period. The majority of adult participants were female (72%) and Black (59%). Participants reported taking an average of ten PRT trips per week and spending an average of nearly $30 on public transportation per week at the time they enrolled in the Pilot.
  • Most participants successfully received their Pilot-issued farecard and used the card at least one time. 90 percent of adults in the free-fares group tapped their assigned farecard at least once. 82 percent of the half-fares group and 81 percent of the no-discount group tapped their farecard at least once. The majority of farecard non-users likely never received their assigned card.
  • Larger fare discounts resulted in greater use of Pilot-issued farecards. Participants in the half-fares group tapped their assigned farecards an average of 1.6 more times per week than the no-discount group. Participants in the free-fares group tapped their assigned farecards an average of 3.3 more times per week than the half-fare group. 
  • The fare discounts yielded improvements in certain measures of financial savings and transportation security. In particular, the free fares reduced self-reported weekly spending on PRT trips by more than $17 relative to no discount while there was an $8.92 decrease in weekly spending on average for the 50% discount group. Free fares led to a 26 percentage-point decrease, while 50% discounts resulted in a 10 percentage-point drop in the self-reported likelihood of missing work or other appointments in the past four weeks due to transportation issues.
  • Discounted fares had limited effects on health care utilization, with no clear patterns emerging in terms of increased or decreased use of care. The fare discounts had no discernible impact on participants’ likelihood of receiving Medicaid-funded health care in the first 270 days after they enrolled in the Pilot.

How is this being used? 

DHS is using the Pilot results to better understand the ways that low-income households may benefit from reduced PRT fares. We will continue to refine our understanding by analyzing longer-term outcomes and by incorporating insights from qualitative interviews that were conducted with a subset of participants. These findings will be shared in a future publication.

DHS has also used the preliminary Pilot results to inform the design and implementation of a longer-term program that will offer a 50% PRT discount for working-age county SNAP beneficiaries and their children. This new program, called Allegheny Go, is scheduled to launch in June 2024.

Other information

Research Plan

DHS Goals and Key Initiatives: 2024

Current information

DHS has set five goals to guide us and our partners in serving our community well. We aim for our network for human services to improve access to care, prevent overuse of coercive services, prevent harm, increase economic security and ensure quality.

What is this report about?

DHS can reach our goals more quickly if we devote time and attention to several big, bold initiatives that will make our systems and our organization work better for everyone we serve. This document outlines our key initiatives in 2024—which are in addition to our core work of running effective systems of care for people.

DHS 2023 Accomplishments

Current information

County human services includes programs from over 300 community-based agencies and is delivered by social workers, peers, and outreach staff working all throughout the county. These staff run out-of-school-time programs, answer hotlines, investigate reports of potential harm to children and vulnerable adults, deliver meals to seniors and run Senior Centers, make home visits to families with newborns, and do the administrative work that makes our human services run efficiently.

What is this report about?

This report highlights the 2023 accomplishments that stood out. There are many, many other achievements that people told us about. We chose the ones that made the biggest difference.

Current Information

Allegheny County DHS sends text messages to county residents for a variety of reasons, including increasing awareness of services, providing timely reminders, and gathering feedback after a service experience.  In addition, DHS uses this information to help evaluate and monitor programs it delivers.  This dashboard displays information about these outreach and engagement efforts, including the subject and purpose of these and the rates of engagement.  Data on DHS’s texting efforts are available from November 2017 to the present.

The dashboard allows users to examine DHS text messaging as a whole as well as drill down to individual text campaigns.  It allows users to understand the purpose of each campaign, the number of messages sent and the demographics of the people being contacted by each campaign.  DHS collects this information through Community Connect Labs (CCL), DHS’s texting software, and information is updated daily. Click here for a more detailed report on DHS’s texting outreach from 2018-2022.

Current Information

Allegheny County Department of Human Services (DHS) believes that appropriate sharing of client information is essential to the provision, continuity and overall quality of care provided to DHS clients. It has created a number of tools and mechanisms to facilitate this sharing, including the creation of tools for contracted providers to access information on clients they are serving and mechanisms for providers to safely and security share client information back with DHS. Read more about this here and access the tools through the below links.

Where can I access provider tools?

Links to clientivew, a tool for individual care coordination, and provider connect, a tool for to support provider decision-making, are found here. You can also access data exchange, one of the tools that providers can use to securely share information back with DHS.

How I can gain access to these tools if I don’t already have it?

If you are a contracted provider with DHS, you can request access to provider tools through DHS’s application support portal.

Allegheny County Data Warehouse

Learn more about the Data Warehouse

What is the Allegheny County Data Warehouse?

The Allegheny County Data Warehouse brings together and integrates client and service data from a wide variety of sources both internal and external to the County.

How was the Data Warehouse developed?

The Data Warehouse was created by consolidating publicly-funded human services data (e.g., behavioral health, child welfare, developmental supports, homelessness and aging) and, over time, expanded to include data from other sources. The Data Warehouse was made possible with support from the Human Service Integration Fund, a flexible funding pool created by a coalition of local foundations for the purpose of supporting integration and innovation within DHS.

How does the Data Warehouse support of the work of Allegheny County?

The Data Warehouse was designed primarily to improve services to clients, but also to improve the ability of workers to perform their jobs and to support management decisionmaking; it is also intended to be available as a community resource, making data and information publicly available whenever possible.

Where can I learn more?

  • This overview document describes the development of the Data Warehouse, the County’s data sharing partnerships, and how the data is utilized to support client services and decisionmaking. 

What is the DHS case competition?

Each year, the Allegheny County Department of Human Services (DHS) hosts a competition for local graduate students that challenges interdisciplinary teams to solve a problem in local government.

What information is available?

Yearly reports, below, describe the case topic and students’ proposed solutions. A short video explains the event.


All reports

  • 2023: Improving outcomes for people involved in an involuntary commitment
  • 2022: Innovating in the Aftershock of COVID-19: A Post-Pandemic Local Government Playbook
  • 2019: Human Service Delivery in the Gig Economy
  • 2018: Emerging Technologies to Address Human Service Problems
  • 2017: Rethinking Human Services Delivery
  • 2016: Improving Systems to Help People with Barriers Gain and Sustain Employment
  • 2015: Making Transportation Work: Creating Access and Ensuring Equity
  • 2014: Pathways to Safe and Affordable Housing for People Involved in the Human Services System
  • 2013: Building a Human Services Workforce for the 21st Century
  • 2012: Addressing Suburban Poverty and Those Affected by It
  • 2011: Reducing Stigma among Individuals with Serious Mental Illness
  • 2010: Pittsburgh Public Schools and the Pathways to the Promise
  • 2009: Building the Homewood Children’s Village
  • 2008: Greening DHS
  • 2007: The Future of DHS

DHS Annual Plans and Budgets

In its responsibility for administering publicly-funded human services, Allegheny County Department of Human Services (DHS) plans for the allocation of more than $1B in areas that span behavioral health, children and families, aging, housing and homelessness, and intellectual disability and autism services.

How does DHS plan its allocation of resources?

DHS planning activities are ongoing and iterative. They include:

What is the County Human Services Plan?

The County Human Services Plan consolidates planning requirements for categorical components of the Human Services Block Grant, including Mental Health Community Base-Funded Services, Behavioral Health Services Initiative (BHSI), Intellectual Disabilities Community Base-Funded Services, Act 152 of 1988 Drug and Alcohol Services, Homeless Assistance Program Funding, and Human Services Development Funds. It is submitted annually to the PA Department of Human Services, 60 days after the agency releases its annual bulletin (usually in the summer).

What is the Needs-Based Plan and Budget?

The Needs-Based Plan and Budget articulates Allegheny County’s priorities, planned services, and resource needs for serving children and families – in particular those children and families who are involved with, or at risk of involvement with, the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. It is submitted annually to the PA Department of Human Services, Office of Children, Youth & Families (the budget narrative submission deadline is August 15th every year).

State Fiscal Year (SFY) 2024-25

Older plans:

What is the Area Agency on Aging Strategic Plan?

The Allegheny County Area Agency on Aging (AAA) is part of a nationwide aging network led by the U.S. Administration on Community Living and the Pennsylvania Department on Aging (PDA). Every four years, PDA requires each of the Commonwealth’s fifty-two (52) Area Agencies on Aging to submit an action plan for the following four years. This Four-Year Plan considers the demographic trends of the region, the changing needs of the consumers, and the current services provided by the Allegheny County AAA.

Additionally, every year the Allegheny County AAA releases Program Updates and a Budget Prospectus, as well as an Annual Report.

Community Services Needs Assessment & Strategic Plan

Allegheny County DHS is the designated community action agency for the receipt of the County’s (outside the City of Pittsburgh) Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) funds. CSBG is a federally funded block grant from the US Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children & Families, Office of Community Services that supports services aiming to alleviate the causes and conditions of poverty in under resourced communities. CSBG recipients are required to conduct a needs assessment and develop a strategic plan no less than every 5 years.  

Housing and Homelessness

Allegheny County DHS, through its Office of Community Services, is the designated Infrastructure Organization and United Funding Agency for the Allegheny County Continuum of Care (CoC) – the network of services and stakeholders engaged in making homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring. Starting in 2016, the CoC underwent a community planning process to create its strategic plan. The strategic planning process is summarized in Preventing and Ending Homelessness – Community Strategic Planning Process. Principles guiding the strategic plan can be found in the Guiding Principles: Allegheny County Plan to Prevent & End Homelessness. The working board of the CoC, the Homeless Advisory Board (HAB), voted to accept the plan on July 25, 2017.

Other plans

Access the report

The Intimate Partner Violence Reform Initiative was created in May 2022 to coordinate policy and system-level work across agencies in Allegheny County to improve a complex and fragmented system for both survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) and those who use violence.

Stakeholders from local and federal criminal justice systems, victim service organizations, community groups, healthcare and human services are working to improve the ways in which people can access help, how our systems work together and share information, and how we can prevent the most serious harm. This report outlines the progress made in the first year of the initiative, as well as plans and priorities to continue these reform efforts.

In 2022, staff at the Urban Institute partnered with the Allegheny County DHS and the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center (WPRDC) to pilot synthetic data generation at the local level, to help understand the unique challenges that might face state and local governments in generating synthetic data. Each record in the synthetic dataset represents a simulated individual, or record, who received at least one service from the Allegheny County DHS in 2021. The synthetic data were designed such that records aggregated by service represent the original data. Read more here about synthetic data.

Why create a synthetic dataset?

The Department of Human Services (DHS) in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, serves one in five residents of the county every year through child welfare services, behavioral health services, aging services, developmental support services, homeless and housing supports, and family strengthening and youth supports. In the process, data are collected about these services and the population using them. These data are integrated at the individual level to allow for better care coordination, operational improvements, and program evaluation. Because of the dataset’s sensitive nature, it cannot be widely shared at an individual level, so synthetic data are used in the real dataset’s place—allowing the data to be publicly shared and helping stakeholders, including researchers, service providers, and members of the public, understand these populations better.

Current Information

The Allegheny County Department of Human Services (DHS) engages clients and others who interact with DHS programs in a variety of ways: regular roundtables/cabinets (e.g., Children’s Cabinet); town halls and community forums; social media (e.g., Facebook and LinkedIn); and the Director’s Action Line (DAL). In 2018, DHS expanded its public engagement strategy to include SMS text messaging (texting), a tool that is convenient for recipients and allows DHS to scale up communication with clients and other Allegheny County residents.

What is this report about?

This data brief describes DHS’s texting outreach from 2018 to 2022.  This brief outlines the different distribution paths and mechanisms that DHS uses for text outreach, and characterizes the number and content of text messages sent, the demographics of the text recipients, and the impact of DHS’s text outreach thus far.

What are the takeaways?

  • From 2018 through 2022, DHS sent 832,038 text messages to 151,707 phone numbers.  Over the same time period, DHS received 193,283 messages in response from 19,185 phone numbers.
  • The content type of the text messages sent over this time period can be categorized as follows: program outreach (48%), data collection (44%), alerts (7%), and public policy updates (1%).
  • The subject of the text messages sent over this time period are diverse, but a disproportionate share (72%) are about transportation, due to the extensive use of text messaging for outreach and data collection in relation to the Allegheny County Discounted Fares Pilot program.
  • In 2021, 74% of text messages were related to one of the following initiatives: COVID-19 rental assistance, the Older Youth Pandemic Relief program, or information about free tax preparation services.
  • In 2022, 88% of text messages were related to one of the following initiatives: the Allegheny County Discounted Fares program, the SNAP fresh access program, or recruitment and outreach for paid research opportunities with university partners.
  • Text messaging has allowed DHS to connect clients to resources at scale, and to elicit feedback from clients who would likely never otherwise have the time or opportunity to share their feedback.  Examples of this described in the brief include text outreach associated with the Older Youth Pandemic Relief program, and text message surveys sent to clients who use Family Center services.

How is this report being used?

The county is interested in innovative and effective ways to outreach and engage with clients.  We believe that text messaging is one way to do this at scale.  The county is using the information presented in this report to inform overall strategy about how we best engage and use client feedback information to improve programs and increase overall access to social services.

At the Allegheny County Department of Human Services (DHS), we work with more than 400 community organizations to keep children and older adults safe from abuse and neglect, connect them to effective mental health and substance use treatment, provide housing for those without shelter and more. As stewards of more than $1 billion in public funding, we constantly scrutinize the programs and services we fund to ensure that they are most effectively helping clients make measurable progress toward their goals. We pay close attention to the data, including client feedback and surveys, and use these data to determine when it’s in clients’ best interest to modify existing programs or launch new ones. Recently, we have been increasing our commitment to the use of randomized pilots to measure the effectiveness of various strategies and determine how to make the best use of available resources. In keeping with our values of transparency and the appropriate use of data for decision-making, we want to share our thinking behind the use of pilots as an effective tool to further the Department’s goals and values while improving client outcomes.

What are randomized pilots?

When we ask, Was this program effective?, We want to know if client outcomes are better for program participants when compared to the outcomes of others not involved in the program. There are various ways to make this comparison. For example, we can compare client status before and after the program or we can compare their outcomes to clients who chose to not participate in the program. The weakness of both of these approaches is their reliance on the assumption that the groups are similar, i.e., on average, they would have performed the same if neither had received the intervention. Thus, we are left wondering, “How can we distinguish the program impact from the effects of time or characteristics of the participants?” Randomized pilots solve this problem by breaking the link between characteristics that could drive differences between groups and the program itself. In a randomized pilot, participants are assigned to different programs or policies randomly, based on the equivalent of a coin flip. These methods are standard practice in medical and drug trials to measure the effectiveness of health interventions with confidence; in recent years, they have become more popular with governments entities, nonprofit organizations and businesses.

Why start with a pilot?

Many organizations have highlighted the value of randomization (see here and here for examples). Rather than rehash their points, we expand upon three DHS core values that are supported by the use of pilots.

  • Accountability and Transparency: Too often, the performance of government-led initiatives or strategies are unclear, making it impossible to measure progress or demand accountability. Change, if it does occur, is not based on credible data nor connected to measurable outcomes. Without clear information, program continuation or termination may be based on subjective decisions that might be inaccurate. In contrast, DHS wants to be held accountable and to ensure that we are funding programs that measurably improve the outcomes of the clients who rely on us for critical support, services and resources. We seek to provide clear feedback to ourselves and our stakeholders, demonstrating either that our investments are producing their intended outcome(s) and that money is being spent effectively or that the program needs to be modified or even ended. Randomized pilots promote this accountability and transparency because they are simple to understand, analyze and report on.
  • Betting boldly: Pilots allow us to bet on new, unproven or controversial solutions without committing to expensive or unproven investments that don’t produce results. By getting clear data on performance of new interventions, we can make informed decisions that are in the best interest of those we serve. At DHS, pilots will never be used to generate a known answer to a question or to withhold resources for an intervention clients would otherwise be entitled to receive (e.g., publicly funded childcare subsidies).
  • Continuous improvement: Given the complexity and range of the problems we face—from the opioid epidemic to community violence—we need to use every tool at our disposal to make progress. In government, as in any endeavor, it is hard to improve without feedback. Pilots are a key part of a continuous quality improvement cycle that starts with asking whether programs are effective and how they could be better. They guard against poor decision-making by providing data on an initial investments before making longer term decisions about funding and large-scale program launches.

Pilot ethics

Earning and keeping clients’ trust is essential for our work. In line with our strategic initiatives, work on algorithms and funding decisions, we will continue to strive for transparency and community engagement as we develop pilots and report on their results and ultimate funding decisions. Our commitment to transparency and
protections for clients includes:

  • Seeking participants’ informed consent for sharing data and voluntary participation in all pilots.
  • Targeting studies to individuals and neighborhoods that can benefit from the solution.
  • Compensating clients for completing surveys and other forms of participation.
  • Protecting participants’ data—study data will always be reported only in aggregate form, protecting the individual identity of all participants.

When partnering with outside academics who propose to analyze and report on the implementation and outcomes of a pilot, they will be asked to submit their analysis plan to their institutions’ Institutional Review Board (IRB), thus minimizing the risk of unintended negative outcomes and ensuring informed consent. In any case, when we implement and analyze the results of a pilot to inform decisions about launching the program, we commit to publishing the results and decisions on our website. We welcome suggestions about potential interventions where a randomized pilot can increase our understanding of the specific intervention and of the kind of interventions community members are interested in testing (contact us at DHS-Research@alleghenycounty.us). Randomized pilots have the potential to increase our data-informed program decisions and improve the quality and relevance of program strategies; they will also challenge us to make the best use of our resources. We look forward to the challenge and hope you’ll join us as we expand this continuous quality improvement strategy. We’ll update this website as we begin new pilots and report on interim and final results.

Latinx Needs Assessment

The Latinx population of Allegheny County is growing fast. It is important to understand this community’s demographics, geographic locations, and how our social, health and human services systems are and are not meeting their needs so we can strengthen families and advance the health and wellness that are crucial to supporting the local Latinx community.

What is the Latinx needs assessment?

In early 2020 the Latinx community asked Allegheny County Department of Human Services (DHS) to commission a community needs assessment. DHS issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) in August 2020, and a review committee selected Metis Associates as the successful proposer. The RFP is available here. Award details and the successful proposal is available here.

The assessment, which was conducted between January and September 2021, was a collaboration between Metis Associates, a research firm from New York; MonWin, an urban planning firm in Pittsburgh; and several community researchers. The assessment includes interviews with community leaders and service providers, focus groups with community members, and a review of public and administrative data sources.

What is the Service Utilization by Latinx Communities Data Brief?

To accompany the findings of the needs assessment, DHS conducted the following analyses to describe Latinx use of human services, publicly funded health services and involvement with the criminal justice system within Allegheny County. The analysis describes participation rates of people identifying as Latinx in 1) family and child services, 2) physical and behavioral health services, 3) aging services, 4) developmental support services, 5) income supports, 6) housing and homeless supports, and 7) criminal and juvenile justice involvement.