Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Foster care in Los Angeles: Why Trish Ploehn must go (and who should replace her)

            It’s been obvious for some time that Trish Ploehn’s days as the embattled director of the beleaguered Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (or, if you prefer, the beleaguered director of the embattled … etc.) are numbered.

            If Ploehn is fired it increases the odds of L.A. Times reporter Garrett Therolf winning awards for his lousy journalism (it will be item one on the entry form under “What did the stories accomplish?”).  If Ploehn is fired it may well lead to a suck-up piece about the wonderful job Therolf and the Times have done by the Times’ media reporter James Rainey (notwithstanding Rainey’s own conflict of interest – more than a decade ago, he screwed up the child welfare beat in much the same way as Therolf).  If Ploehn is fired it’s going to take time to find a good replacement - the pool of available talent is thin. And if Ploehn is fired it will contribute to the reputation of the top child welfare job in L.A. as a revolving door.

In spite of all that, it’s essential that the Board of Supervisors replace Trish Ploehn. Because you can’t run one of the largest child welfare agencies in America from a bunker.

            A Therolf trademark is briefly opening the door to those holding other points of view when he thinks he’s writing what amounts to an obituary for what they stand for.  Thus, the one and only time the excellent grassroots group for families who have lost children to Ploehn’s agency, DCFS-Give Us Back Our Children, was allowed a word in edgewise in a Therolf story was when he was writing about Ploehn saying she was going to stop trying to reduce the number of children in foster care – which seems to be one of Therolf’s  biggest goals.

            Similarly, with Ploehn now plainly on the way out, Donna Myrow, who publishes a newspaper written by foster youth, was allowed to point out in a Therolf story that children known-to-the- system actually have died even while other people were running DCFS:

 [Myrow] said Ploehn has worked under a microscope in ways her predecessors did not because new disclosure laws have made it easier for the public to see the department's worst cases.  "The problems we are reading about are not new, they are just coming to the public's attention in ways they did not before," said Myrow.


            That law is, in fact, crucial to understanding everything that’s happened since.  By opening up records only in death or near death cases, it plays right into the hands of the Garrett Therolfs of journalism.  Since more children live in their own homes than in foster homes, more children are going to die in their own homes than in foster homes – even though the rate of abuse in foster care is far higher than the rate in the general population.  And since everything else, all those poverty-confused-with-neglect cases and other needless removals of children, remains secret, the law reinforces the impression that child welfare systems err in only one direction – leaving children in dangerous homes.

            The fatality story also becomes the easiest story to do – child welfare’s equivalent of  low-hanging fruit.  For a reporter whose beat is crime, or government or human services, there may be no faster way to journalism awards and career advancement (or at least making sure you’re spared in the next round of layoffs) than to do “the fatality series.” And once you have the most compelling possible victim – a dead child – you need a simple villain.  So the easiest scapegoat is the one that is simple, obvious – and wrong: efforts to keep families together. 

            So it is true that no matter what Trish Ploehn did, no matter how open she was about her agency’s failings and no matter how much information she provided, Garrett Therolf would have distorted it and used it selectively to reinforce his own “master narrative.”

            There are several ways one can deal with that:

            ● Press the legislature to broaden the law so the agency can release information about all cases, not just the fatalities.

            ● Follow the lead of New York, Arizona, and at least two other states and pass legislation allowing DCFS and its counterparts around the state to comment on any case that becomes public in any way.

            ● Press the legislature to open all court hearings to the press and the public so better reporters than Garrett Therolf can walk in anytime and see how the system typically functions in typical cases.

            ● Release all information that existing law allows and interpret all ambiguity in favor of openness – and then seek out journalists who are not determined to slant every story to fit their master narrative. 

Yes, the Times remains by far the loudest media voice, but the Los Angeles Daily News consistently has provided context the Times leaves out, the smart Blog Witnessla.com also has added perspective  missing from the Times news pages, and LA Weekly pointed out that Therolf’s own editors had to dial back one of his recent storiesLA Observed, a Blog that closely follows media in the region hasn’t weighed in yet, but it’s another place where an alternative to Therolf’s “master narrative” might find a fair hearing.  All that media combined can provide some degree of check-and-balance on the Times – provided DCFS itself proves it can be trusted by being absolutely open and candid about its own failings.


            Instead, Ploehn dived into the bunker.  For starters, she began trying to stop the release of information on the death cases – taking advantage of the fact that the law allowing their release is badly written and full of loopholes.  Of course that only led to the information being leaked.  Then Ploehn compounded the problem by launching an investigation into the leaks.  Nothing – nothing – makes a newspaper angrier than someone trying to find and punish their sources.  And the investigation itself took on a Keystone Kops flavor when DCFS workers allegedly conducted an illegal search of the purse of Darlene McDade-White, the agency’s own lead internal affairs investigator, apparently believing she might be the leaker.  They found no evidence of that.

            When Ploehn wasn’t stonewalling, she was dissembling.  Trish Ploehn has managed to answer the same basic question with responses that boil down to “yes” “no” and “maybe” – all in the same day.

            All of this is morally reprehensible.  The public has a right to know how a government agency charged with protecting its vulnerable citizens is functioning.  Period.  The fact that on rare occasions, a journalist will behave reprehensibly himself and distort the information does not repeal that right.

            It’s also remarkably stupid.   Every leak of a case file, or even part of a file, becomes another story.  Every attempt to suppress information becomes another story.  Every attempt to find out who is leaking information becomes another story.  If Garrett Therolf really does manage to win his Pulitzer Prize he ought to share the prize money with Trish Ploehn, who made it all possible.

            This also means that Ploehn’s replacement needs to send three clear messages from day one:

            ●We’re coming out of the bunker.  We will provide all the information we can as quickly and as accurately as we can, and we will interpret any ambiguity in law in favor of openness, even as we push to change laws to allow for more disclosure.

            ●Garrett Therolf will not be allowed to dictate child welfare policy in Los Angeles County.  We will not be intimidated by his distortion and misrepresentation of our efforts to keep children safely in their own homes.  Indeed, the data clearly show that these efforts have been inadequate – Los Angeles County still takes away too many children - and we will redouble those efforts.  We will do that because for the overwhelming majority of children the overwhelming majority of the time, family preservation is the safer option.

            ● Frontline workers will be held accountable for laziness, incompetence and stupidity.  But they will not be scapegoated for honest error – and we will not respond to every new headline with a blizzard of pointless new policies, making their tough jobs even tougher.


            As for who might be able to send such a message, there is one person who could come in on an interim basis and truly hit the ground running – and it’s someone who might be available on an interim basis at no charge.  I’ll repeat a suggestion I first made last February:

Bring back David Sanders.

Sanders was Ploehn's immediate predecessor. He is the only DCFS director in recent years to leave the job voluntarily, and the only one who could cope with the County Board of Supervisors. He initiated the waiver from federal child welfare financing limits that Therolf has been trying so hard to smear, so he has a strong interest in seeing that it works.

He also made some mistakes. Entries into care increased during his tenure, and he brought in an approach to deciding who to throw into foster care called Structured Decision Making which has backfired (See our material on Los Angeles County child welfare for details).

But the fact that he pushed for the waiver suggests he saw the problems and was moving to deal with them, when he left to become Executive Vice President of Systems Improvement at Casey Family Programs (CFP), the multi-billion dollar foundation that loves fancy titles and spent more than 51 hours on this Blog and NCCPR's website last year - and another three-and-a-half hours just yesterday.

A few years ago CFP essentially vacuumed up many of the best and the brightest in child welfare (like David Sanders) around the country (and when they ran out of good people who would accept their offers, they started scraping the middle of the barrel, too.) It's time that Casey gave something back, by "lending" Sanders to Los Angeles, while continuing to pay his salary, so Sanders can help fix the mess that Trish Ploehn did so much to create.

If you’re reading this Dr. Sanders (and, given how much time people at CFP spend on this Blog, the odds are pretty good) you should know there is one improvement over when you had the job before: The Board of Supervisors is behaving itself remarkably well.  In spite of all the pressure – and how easy it would be to get great press by pandering to Therolf - only one of the five Supervisors, Zev Yaroslavsky, has been doing that.  So, given that they already know and respect you, it just might be possible to clean up this mess.

Tomorrow: The real lessons from the waiver evaluation