Blackmon advises federal commission on child deaths

By Tom Joyce

July 13, 2014

An analytics expert who was born and raised in Mount Airy is playing a role in preventing child fatalities, which has included appearing before a federal commission.

Albert Blackmon addressed the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities on Thursday during a meeting held in Tampa, Florida, to discuss ways of dealing with a problem that caused the deaths of 1,640 children nationwide in 2012.

Blackmon — an employee of Statistical Analysis System (SAS) Institute Inc., an analytics software company based in Cary, near Raleigh — was among a group of experts assembled by the commission to dissect abuse and neglect issues.

The local native works in the SAS Advanced Analytics Lab for State and Local Government. His Thursday presentation before the federal commission was related to efforts to promote better decisions regarding the future of child welfare through the analysis of existing information.

“I think it went very well,” Blackmon said in a telephone interview Friday.

The SAS employee is a 2004 graduate of North Surry High School. Blackmon is a descendant of Eng Bunker, one of the original Siamese Twins, and has numerous relatives in this area, including his mother Janet and two grandmothers, among others. Blackmon’s father, Albert Montgomery “Monty” Blackmon Sr., died in 2013.

After graduating from North Surry, Blackmon received an undergraduate degree in mathematics and economics from N.C. State University in 2008.

He then moved back to Mount Airy for a year to work at Hampton Inn, a family business, before returning to Raleigh to pursue his master’s degree in analytics in 2010-11. Along the way, Blackmon also got married to his wife Rachel.

Making A Difference

During Thursday’s event in Florida, representatives of the child welfare, law enforcement, public health and technology fields explored various strategies surrounding child fatalities, which included hearing from Blackmon.

One of the focuses of SAS — the company he works for — is helping businesses and governmental entities gather, store, access, analyze and report on various data to aid in decision-making. On Thursday, he presented findings from a recent project in Florida that included poring through the files of about 1 million children to identify factors indicating a high risk of death.

Last year, SAS teamed with the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) and a consulting firm to research nearly six years of data on children who had been involved with Florida’s child-welfare system on some level. That department routinely uses “predictive analytics” in its operations to shape child welfare and protective efforts.

While his work deals with identifying trends from raw statistics, Blackmon said he has learned to keep the human side of the equation in mind. “People, and especially children, are not numbers,” he said.

“It definitely pulls at your heartstrings,” Blackmon added of cases he researched.

He believes the analysis resulting from the study can help shift the approach to child welfare from mitigating tragedy to improving outcomes.

“I think the easiest, and I think the biggest, one that we can do is encourage data-sharing between organizations,” he said Friday of possible remedies for child fatalities.

“Often this information gets siloed — it’s there, but people don’t talk to each other across agency lines.”

And dealing with abuse and neglect problems sometimes is a matter of having resources available.

“Our research showed the tremendous positive effect of a visit from a caseworker,” Blackmon said of one example. “But child-protective services agencies across the country are overburdened.”

The SAS study in Florida considered various factors. These included previous child removals from homes due to sexual abuse and drug abuse, and physical or mental disabilities.

SAS says the resulting five-year Child Fatality Trend Analysis is helping investigators better predict the needs of families in crisis. It examined increases or decreases in the odds of children dying as a result of such factors as parental alcohol or drug abuse; physical abuse; and intervention by the governmental agency handling their cases.

Blackmon explained that he and other analytical personnel aren’t trying to replace or usurp the roles of those who work in the child-welfare field. The aim is to help those in that area of expertise use relevant information to further their efforts.

“Analytics can help caseworkers identify the most at-risk kids, as well as pinpoint the services that can lead to the most positive outcomes,” he said of the SAS goal of seeking effective tools for those professionals.

“I am extremely pleased to be a part of this effort, and to be working at SAS.”

Blackmon also mentioned CJLEADS (Criminal Justice Law Enforcement Automated Data Services), a Web-based application hosted by SAS which has played a crime-solving role. It allows information to be assembled from various sources to give law enforcement officials a complete picture of a suspect’s criminal history and status.

CJLEADS was spawned by two high-profile murders of college students in North Carolina during 2008, including that of Eve Carson, a student at the University of North Carolina. The suspects in both cases were on probation at the time and the data provided by the CJLEADS system allows authorities to keep closer tabs on offenders, streamline investigations and possibly prevent future crimes.

The system also has played a role in other cases, including one leading to the arrests of 14 members of a ring that staged car accidents, based on information from the N.C. Department of Insurance.

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.