Teams at NYU and University of Minnesota to Identify Child Maltreatment Causes Using Causal Data Science

Logos of partners collaborating on this center

NYU Grossman, Silver, and McSilver, with University of Minnesota, received a $7.6M P50 Grant for the NICHD-funded CHAMP Center

A new, federally-funded research center collaboration between New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, Silver School of Social Work, McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research, along with the University of Minnesota, are investigating the use of causal modeling to identify the factors that lead to child maltreatment and its consequences — such as depression, suicidal behavior, or posttraumatic stress - and to identify targeted interventions that can reduce children’s risk for these devastating outcomes.

The Center on Causal Data Science for Child and Adolescent Maltreatment Prevention (CHAMP Center) has received a five-year, $7.6 million P50 grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The CHAMP Center is now the fourth project in the nation to join NICHD’s CAPSTONE Centers for Multidisciplinary Research in Child Abuse and Neglect, which are funded to find solutions to ongoing public health concerns caused by the well-documented impact of childhood trauma. It is the first and only center to use causal data science in its approach.

Under the leadership of the project’s principal investigator, Dr. Glenn Saxe, NYU Grossman will oversee the collaborative science required for the CHAMP Center to achieve its ambitious goals.

“In 2019, over 650,000 cases of maltreatment were substantiated in the U.S., but this is the tip of the iceberg of children who are maltreated, as so many cases go unreported,” said Dr. Saxe. “The CHAMP Center will advance the scientific knowledge required to help professionals to better know how to reduce a child’s risk and will offer them tools to implement personalized interventions to address and prevent harm.”

Causal data science differs from other data analytic approaches by its methodological ability to search through data on the many thousands of factors that might be associated with a child’s risk, to identify the specific ones that can be shown to be the direct cause. Since interventions can only work if they are directed to change an underlying cause, causal data science sees the first step in reducing a child’s risk as knowing its true root origin. Causal data science also aims to offer the additional, crucial benefit of reducing biases related to factors such as race, culture, and income level that can occur in research on child maltreatment. While the threat of bias is always present, using causal data science methods can reduce biases by drilling down to only factors that directly influence the child’s risk.

The CHAMP Center involves dedicated collaboration between teams at NYU and the University of Minnesota. The NYU Grossman team, led by Dr. Saxe, provides overall leadership and oversight of the center so that its discoveries are translated into the knowledge and tools that will result in a large-scale impact on the considerable problem of child maltreatment. The team at Minnesota’s Institute for Health Informatics, led by Drs. Sisi Ma and Constantin Aliferis, will apply advanced data science methods to build and test models revealing the children who are most at risk and the causes that most contribute to those risks. A multidisciplinary team across institutions will transform these models into tools to support clinicians caring for at-risk children and families. These tools will then be tested at NYU Langone Brooklyn’s Family Health Centers in a clinical trial led by Dr. Kate Sullivan of the NYU Silver School.

“The CHAMP Center offers an incredible opportunity to bring cutting-edge data science techniques to bear on some of the most pressing problems facing children and families and the systems that serve them,” said Dr. Sullivan. “It is particularly exciting that translation into actual clinical practice is already embedded in this effort, consonant with the priorities of NYU Silver.”

“The CHAMP Center is the result of the culmination of collaborative research between NYU and the University of Minnesota teams, over more than a decade, to solve a very hard problem: How do we discover the causes of maltreatment and other traumas and their terrible effects so that the resulting discoveries can be used in the field to change people’s lives? Solving this problem requires teams of data scientists to work with clinical scientists, clinicians, and a diversity of other stakeholders, including families.” said Dr. Ma.

The CHAMP Center will solve the hard problem that Dr. Ma identifies by considering the discovery of causes using state-of-the-art machine learning techniques as only the first step in its work. Then, a broad range of stakeholders must be involved in transforming CHAMP Center discoveries into tools that can be used with children and families to reduce their risks. This effort will be led by Dr. Andrew Cleek, deputy executive director of the NYU McSilver Institute, who will lead the Center’s stakeholder engagement process, consulting with key participants to ensure the knowledge and tools produced by the Center are safe, trustworthy, and practical. Additionally, Dr. Cleek’s team is responsible for disseminating the scientific knowledge and tools produced by the CHAMP Center so they may achieve their widest reach and greatest impact.

“The CHAMP Center provides a unique opportunity to bring a substantial level of inquiry into an array of issues that will lead to the real-world improvement in the lives of children and their caregivers. The McSilver Institute is thrilled and honored to be part of this remarkable collaboration with our colleagues at NYU and the University of Minnesota,” NYU McSilver’s Dr. Cleek said.

Participating Organizations

About NYU Silver

Founded in 1960 and renowned for a strong tradition of excellence in direct social work practice and dedication to social justice, NYU Silver has provided rigorous training to more than 20,000 social work practitioners and leaders in every area of the field, making it the leading destination for students who want to become innovative practitioners at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels of social work practice. The School has four campuses in the heart of New York City, Rockland County, Westchester County, and Shanghai.

About the University of Minnesota

The University of Minnesota System, with campuses in Crookston, Duluth, Morris, Rochester, and the Twin Cities, is driven by a singular vision of excellence. We are proud of our land-grant mission of world-class education, groundbreaking research, and community-engaged outreach, and we are unified in our drive to serve Minnesota. Visit

About the NYU McSilver Institute

The NYU McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research is committed to creating new knowledge about the root causes of poverty, developing evidence-based interventions to address its consequences, and rapidly translating research findings into action through policy and best practices.