When I first saw that still another big news organization was doing still another big story about "Safe Families" that so-called alternative to foster care that is really just foster care with sugar frosting, I groaned. I assumed it would be one more puff piece about Safe Families; and in three parts, no less.
I was wrong. For starters, the stories, which focused on one birth parent and one Safe Families foster parent (though Safe Families hates it when you call them that; they are, in all but name, foster parents) really weren't about the Safe Families program itself. Rather, the stories were something you almost never see amid the hype, hysteria and horror stories that characterize a lot of journalism about child welfare: These were stories about a typical case of a mother who lost her newborn daughter to "Safe Families" foster care; exactly the kind of case that dominates most workers' caseloads.
And because Associated Press reporter Martha Irvine spent an enormous amount of time with this family, and brought an enormous amount of insight to the task, what emerges is something that was incredibly rare in journalism even in the "good old days" – i.e. a few years ago – before all the layoffs and buyouts. It's even harder to find today: a compelling, insightful, three-dimensional portrait of the real human beings who typically get caught up in child welfare systems, in all their flawed humanity.
The mother, Hazel Evans, is not a sadist and she's not a brute. She's made her share of mistakes, but her problems boil down largely to poverty – in particular lack of adequate housing. And her problems boil down to the fact that, when you're poor, there is no margin for error.
If you read these stories, make no mistake: Had this been almost anyplace else in America besides Chicago, which has one of the lowest rates of child removal in the country, all of the children, not just the newborn, Autumn, would have been removed and placed in official foster care, not just the sugar-frosted kind - especially after an incident with a dresser. Even in Chicago, had the wrong caseworker come to the door or had deaths of children "known to the system" been making headlines that week, those children would be gone.
As for Safe Families, there's no question that the foster parent , Jessica-Anne Becker, not only meant well, she really helped. Bringing Jessica-Anne Becker into her life was one of the best things that could have happened to Hazel Evans and her children. But there was no reason Jessica-Anne Becker couldn't have been in Hazel Evans' life without ever taking away her child – no reason except the fact that Safe Families isn't designed to do that.
But because the price Safe Families extracts in exchange for helping people like Hazel is, in fact, "voluntary" surrender of the child, the stories reinforce my concerns. As I read them, I was struck by the extent to which Safe Families eased some problems while making others worse, like the ability of Hazel to raise her own infant with confidence and the ability of that infant to bond with her mother. Irvine writes:
…when Autumn came for visits … her teary brown eyes searched everywhere for Jessica-Anne Becker, the volunteer foster mom who'd been caring for Autumn since she was just 2 days old. "It would almost be like she was homesick, like she missed Jessica and David,'' Jessica's husband, Hazel said. "That broke my heart.''
That, in turn, prolonged the separation.
WHAT IF SAFE FAMILIES REALLY PUT THE CHILDREN FIRST?
Suppose the people behind Safe Families devoted the same passion to a program to provide rent subsidies and just enough other help to ease the worst stresses of poverty? Suppose the Safe Families volunteers came in to the families' homes instead of taking the children out? Then Hazel would have gained just as much from Jessica-Anne's mentoring, without the harmful side effects.
The stories also foreshadow problems ahead for Safe Families – if it hasn't happened already without our knowing it. The stories mention foster parents who are reluctant to give back the children they're taking care of. Sooner or later, an impoverished mother like Hazel is going to ask for her child back and a middle-class Safe Families foster mother like Jessica-Anne is going to say no. It will go to court, and, odds are, the mother like Jessica-Anne will win.
This is a particular danger in Oregon, which is rushing headlong into Safe Families without considering how it will mesh with a bizarre, obscene, and, I hope, unique-in-the-nation law that allows absolutely anyone claiming to have "established emotional ties creating a child-parent relationship or an ongoing personal relationship with a child" to march into court and seek possession of the child for his very own. (Yes, I know it's hard to believe, but you can click here and then scroll down to section 109.119 to see for yourself.) Foster parents - the official kind –are specifically prohibited from using this law. But remember, as the Safe Families people say over and over and over, they're not foster care, so …
MAKING OUR OWN JUDGMENTS
Of course, those who love Safe Families may find their views reinforced by the Associated Press stories as well. That's fine. I am one former reporter who clings to the idea, now considered quaint in some circles, that great journalism gives readers the information they need to make up their own minds, instead of making selective use of facts and lots of use of loaded language to tell us what to think.
Journalists who substitute sneer and swagger for actual reporting like to dismiss this as "stenography." On the contrary, the kind of reporting seen here, with its enormous investment of time and alertness to detail, is much more difficult than the self-indulgent, one-sided Pulitzer-sniffing* that too often passes for journalism on the child welfare beat.
Irvine's stories are in the mold of outstanding work like Patricia Wen's Boston Globe series, Barbara's Story, and an LA Weekly series by Celeste Fremon, who now edits Witnessla.com, in which she spent a full year with one struggling family. (Again, there's no one link but you can start at the very end of the last page of the epilogue, where Fremon does share her own view, and click your way back.)
In the end, the greatest benefit Safe Families has for society may be if more volunteers have their views of poverty and poor people shaken-up in the way it happened to Jessica-Anne.
Every time I read or see one of those stories about a once middle-class family now facing foreclosure and using a food bank, I keep waiting for the reporter to ask the family if their perceptions about poor people have changed. It almost never happens. But Martha Irvine asked. Here's the answer:
Before she met Hazel, even Jessica believed that people like Hazel were using the system, or just plain lazy. Then Jessica, jarred from her comfortable suburban existence, got a firsthand view of just how difficult it could be to make sweeping declarations about the Hazels of the world. …
"We had a front-row seat to the system, and it's just so broken,'' Jessica said.
She recalled how a pediatrician and a pharmacist treated her coldly when she used Autumn's state-issued medical card, until they found out she was volunteering to care for Autumn. She witnessed the bureaucracy — how flooded the public social service system was, the waiting for appointments or phone calls about health care or other services for Hazel or her girls.
Jessica had thought money was tight for her family. But now she felt a little ashamed, seeing how difficult it was for someone who makes little more than minimum wage to stay afloat, let alone get ahead.
"Those people who are in that situation have to want it so much more than I ever wanted to move up the ladder, because they're not even near the ladder yet,'' Jessica said.
*-Pulitzer-sniffing is the wonderful term coined by David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter who went on to create the HBO series The Wire, to describe stories that forego the subtlety and nuance of great reporting in favor of sensational multi-part series that sometimes distort the truth in the quest for journalism awards. Awards jurors don't have time for fact-checking they tend to be uncomfortable with anything that challenges conventional wisdom - so Pulitzer-sniffing often works.