Friday, February 12, 2010

UPDATED, FEB. 14: LA foster care: Trish Ploehn dives into the bunker


See brief update at the and of this post

Both Trish Ploehn, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Families, and I have problems with the way the Los Angeles Times has been covering child welfare. We both think that, by focusing almost exclusively on deaths of children "known to the system," drawing vast conclusions from horror stories, larding those stories with loaded language, and leaving out crucial context, the Times has left a grossly-distorted impression of how DCFS fails and why.

We both agree that part of the problem is a California law that opened up files in death and near death cases, while keeping everything else secret. That creates a reflection of the agency that is like seeing something in a funhouse mirror.

But, if a story posted on the Times website tonight is accurate (and, unfortunately, I think the Times' recent track record now requires that caveat), then Ms. Ploehn and I differ on solutions.

I think the solution is total transparency. That means reporters should have the same access to files on every case as they now have (or are supposed to have) when a child dies or nearly dies – so that when a parent claims their children were wrongly taken, reporters are at least a little more likely to look into the case. Total transparency also means opening all court hearings in child maltreatment cases to press and public – as already happens in at least 15 states – so reporters, and the rest of us, can see what the typical cases are like and how they are typically handled.

As is outlined in detail in NCCPR's Due Process Agenda, of all the states that have opened their courts this way, not one has closed them again, because the Chicken Littles were wrong and the fears of opponents never came to pass. The former chief judge of New York's highest court said it best when she opened these courts in her state: "Sunshine is good for children."

I brought this up when I had the opportunity to meet with Ploehn two years ago, to no avail.

I also think that, with or without such transparency, the Times has an obligation to report on these issues, to counter the inherent distortion in its coverage so far. Although it is very difficult to cover fatality cases, compared to everything else that's out there, such cases are the "low hanging fruit" of the beat, precisely because it's the one kind of case where files often are open. But it's not impossible. In just the past three weeks, I sent the NCCPR Child Welfare News Exchange, my e-mail list of more than 300 reporters around the country, examples of superb reporting on the kinds of cases the Times has ignored from The (Nashville) Tennessean, the Omaha World-Herald and Northern Express, the alternative weekly in Traverse City, Michigan, which ran an excellent story as well as sidebars with additional context. The lead reporter on the Times stories, Garrett Therolf, is on this list.


But it seems that, if the Times story is right, Ms. Ploehn has a different approach: Dive into a bunker and slam the door. Ploehn is simply refusing to let the Times see the files on the most recent cases. That is reprehensible. No look at all into an agency that may hold the power of life and death over children is even worse than the distortion of a funhouse mirror. It also may be illegal, for reasons described in the Times story.

And, by the way, it's really, really stupid.

The only thing Ploehn has done is guarantee even more attention to her agency's failings in these cases (and less time to examine all those other failings involving wrongful removal). Here's what probably happens now:

  • The follow-up story, in which other counties are canvassed about their policies and reveal that none of the big ones is as restrictive as Los Angeles.
  • Other news organizations rally 'round (both because it's right and because of self-interest), so the Times findings to this point get even more publicity, and DCFS is condemned on editorial pages across the state.
  • The files start to leak, courtesy of DCFS caseworkers who don't like how a case was handled. All of part of one case file suddenly turns up in the mail. Or caseworkers phone in tips about how a case was handled. So instead of one big story about each case there are several – and they may be less accurate than one that is backed up by a complete case file. Then the process repeats with another case file, and another.
  • Everything DCFS does, good or bad, is even more suspect than it is now, because the agency has adopted what amounts to a blanket policy of "take our word for it."


Once again, Los Angeles should be learning from Florida. Although that state has open courts, the state's Department of Children and Families long had a bunker mentality. The comment was always no comment, and DCF would fight tooth and nail to keep records a secret.

That all changed when Republican Gov. Charlie Crist named one of the state's most popular Democrats, Bob Butterworth, to run DCF. Butterworth threw open the doors.

In Florida, records in death cases can only be released by the courts. Before Butterworth, news organizations would petition to release the records, and DCF would fight them every step of the way. Under Butterworth, and his successor, George Sheldon, DCF typically joins the news organizations in asking that records be open.

While laws on confidentiality have not been changed, the policy is to interpret those laws in ways that always give the benefit of the doubt to openness.

And when the tragic death of a foster child raised questions about the misuse and overuse of psychiatric medications, DCF created a special section of its website devoted to the case, posted the results of its own and other investigations, and even included links to news stories critical of DCF.

The message was simple: We know this agency has been a mess. We're going to clean it up and we're going to show you what we're doing every step of the way.

Of course, openness about failures is not enough. You also have to fix the failures. But the openness created something DCF never had before - a reservoir of goodwill with the state's media. That bought Butterworth and now Sheldon some time to begin the long, slow process of turning around what was once one of the most prominent examples of child welfare failure.

It hasn't stopped all the cheap shot stories; I cited some on this blog last year. But when DCF started showing substantive improvement, the agency got at least some of the credit it deserved, (here's a good example, from Jacksonville). When Butterworth resigned he was the first DCF director in nearly a decade to leave voluntarily, and editorial writers around the state wrote about how sorry they were to see him go.

UPDATE, FEB. 14: And, as the Miami Herald reported today, Sheldon is getting credit for continuing the improvements:

Even the agency's longtime critics are now calling the DCF one of the better agencies in state government.
Sheldon inherited problems, said the Florida Children's Campaign director Roy Miller. "When you inherit problems and you don't do anything about them, when you cover them up, when you misrepresent — that's when we, as a watchdog group, bark."
"That's not the case with George Sheldon," Miller added.

You can't get results like that from a bunker.