Friday, June 2, 2006

Foster care in America: Primetime gets it wrong, part one

           If nothing else, it’s convenient.  Just about everything wrong with how journalists typically cover child welfare, in about 48 minutes.  I’m speaking of the special edition of the ABC News magazine Primetime which aired last night concerning foster care. That program, and related material on the ABC News website, are filled with misleading data, horror stories, grievous sins of omission and plain factual error.  Each segment of the program is an archetype, regurgitating conventional wisdom.  And they topped it off with the shameful exploitation of a young child.

            And that makes the program dangerous to children.  It’s the kind of journalism which, when repeated over and over, encourages foster-care panics.    And over and over again, foster care panics not only drive children needlessly into the very system ABC News rightly condemns, they also have been followed by more child abuse deaths.

            Indeed, the extent of the harm of this kind of journalism can be seen in a poll ABC News commissioned.  

            Among the questions: “In the case of a child who has been removed from home because of abuse or neglect, which of these do you think should be the main goal of the foster care system –to send the child back to live with his or her parents once the parents have gone through counseling or rehab, or to permanently place the child with another family?”

            Scarier than the way the question itself stigmatizes families (any parent who loses a child must need ‘counseling or rehab’) was the answer: Fully 44 percent said the goal – for each and every child – should be to tear him from his parents forever and place him with another family.  Think of what that says about people’s assumptions concerning who loses children to foster care and why.  For this huge proportion of the population, the notion that a child could be in foster care for any reason other than heinous maltreatment is, literally, unthinkable.

            Where are they getting that impression?

            The program, and related material on the ABC News website also are filled with internal contradictions.  On the website, a “letter form Diane Sawyer” declares that it is time to stop “lurching from horror story to horror story.”  Too bad she began the same letter with two horror stories about children brutally abused or horribly neglected by birth parents.  And the program itself offered a litany of such horrors, taking a tiny fraction of what child protective workers see, and treating it as the norm.

            This isn’t a case of journalists trying to sensationalize, and score ratings points.  It’s worse.  The producer of this program is sincere, and that makes it even harder to get him to consider other perspectives. We spoke a few years ago, and he’s on NCCPR’s list of journalists – the one that gets a child welfare news story once or twice a week.  He believes passionately in the cause of helping children through journalism. But he also believes the conventional wisdom: that the system used to bend over backwards to coddle abusive parents and the primary solution is adoption. And he’s flat wrong.

            The problem isn’t that what he believes is wrong.  The problem is that on this program and others he’s produced, he allows no dissenting point of view to be heard.

            Viewers probably will be able to find real solutions on ABC – briefly, tonight.  A segment of World News Tonight scheduled to air this evening (June 2) deals with the reformed system in Pittsburgh, which has dramatically improved child safety by emphasizing safe proven programs to keep families together.  But apparently real solutions are not ready for Primetime.

            Given the producer’s track record, the result was predictable.  As a matter of fact, NCCPR predicted it in a long e-mail to Kerry Marash, the Vice President for Editorial Quality at ABC News.  It was sent on May 30.  The letter predicted what the program would include and what it would leave out.  We got it about 90 percent right.  To date we have received no response.  But what would have been the worst segment of the program, about a child taken from loving foster parents only to be returned to the aunt and uncle now accused of killing her, was deleted.  Whether this was in response to us or to the fact that ABC’s live coverage of the National Spelling Bee ran long, and Primetime was truncated to end at 11, I don’t know.

            Yes, helping to keep families together gets token attention.  And no, birth parents aren’t all portrayed as evil.  Some of them are simply sick.

            Thus, it may be o.k. to reunite a family – but only if the parent has repented, seen the error of her ways, accepted all the “counseling” and “parent education” the system has to offer and so been appropriately “rehabilitated.” Anchor Diane Sawyer repeatedly presented the issue in terms of how many “chances” a parent should be “given.” In Primetime’s world there is no such thing as a parent who loses her child when it’s not her fault – when poverty is confused with neglect.  There is no such thing as an innocent parent.  There is no such thing as wrongful removal.

            Even a good story on Nightline, about the problems faced by children “aging out” of the system, was tainted by this bias.  The program focused on an 18-year-old who’d been placed in foster care at age 14 because, according to reporter Cynthia McFadden, “his mother drank.”  Nothing more.  By the end of the segment the evidence is overwhelming that helping the mother with her drinking problem would have been far better for this young man.  But reporter McFadden strives mightily to disabuse us of the notion, explaining that the child was taken because: “His father left long ago.  His mother drank.  But like most kids in foster care, he still defends her” [emphasis added].

            In other words: Pay no attention to the children; they don’t understand how sick and/or evil their parents are – isn’t it sad that they delude themselves so.  And that’s because anything else would contradict ABC News’ message, which is that the only solutions are: Become a foster parent, hire a lot more caseworkers, warehouse children in residential treatment, and adoption, adoption, adoption.  Diane Sawyer’s repeated calls upon viewers to get involved always revolve around adoption or other actions to support the children in isolation.  There is, so far, not a word about getting involved by helping birth families.  This is exactly what we’ve tried to do for generations, most fanatically for the past ten years, thereby creating the mess we’re in now.  To the journalists at Primetime, that, apparently, is irrelevant.

Exercise in Exploitation

            But perhaps worst of all was what Primetime did to a child.

I am a strong proponent of openness in child welfare; I believe in open courts and open records and I believe agencies should not only be allowed to discuss individual cases, in many situations it should be required – because I think it’s the only way to hold these systems accountable.  In fact, just last week, I made the case to an official in a child welfare system that such accountability is so important that it is in the best interests of children even when it might embarrass a child.

            But that kind of openness does not require what ABC did.

            The longest single segment of the program focused on an 11-year-old girl.  It included a discussion of both the sexual abuse she endured and the fact that she now was inappropriately touching younger children – indeed she spoke of it herself.  Cameras also were rolling at the moment she found out her adoptive parents were, in fact, abandoning her to a residential treatment center, and she’d never go home to them again.

            Through it all, ABC used this child’s real first name, a name that is unusual and, therefore, memorable.  And her face was on camera throughout.

            There is no way an 11-year-old can give informed consent to something like this.  And whatever the law says, there was no one in this child’s life with the moral authority to give such consent.  There were only adoptive parents about to give up on her, and a residential treatment center selling the public on what a wonderful place it is.

            There was no issue of accountability here.  On the contrary, were this child alleging abuse by the treatment center, you can bet they’d be screaming “confidentiality” and not letting journalists anywhere near her.

            And ABC could have gotten a story with just as much impact while changing the child’s name – and 90 percent of the impact while obscuring her face.

            This same producer was similarly exploitative of a birth parent in an earlier Primetime program.

            Part of the case for openness depends on the fact that the media have shown admirable self-restraint when it comes to naming child victims and showing their faces.  Now every agency that wants to cover up its failings, every judge who doesn’t want the public to see what really happens in juvenile court can point to what ABC News has done to make it harder for advocates of openness to make their case.

            All this is doubly sad because it trashes not only families, but also, indirectly, better journalists once at ABC News.  The network looked at foster care in two compelling documentaries (back when commercial networks aired such things) in 1979 and 1988.  The latter program included the comments of a 12-year-old named Boyd, who spoke movingly of how he’d been separated from his loving mother for five years, and how much he missed her.  His mother did not beat him, or torture him.  She was not a drug addict.  Her crime was lacking adequate housing.

            If such a child were to show up at ABC News headquarters today, the producers of last night’s program probably would say “go ‘way kid, ‘ya bother me.”
            Monday: an analysis of the program’s failings, segment-by-segment.