Friday, December 17, 2010

Foster care in Los Angeles: The price of panic

UPDATE: WitnessLA has more, making clear the mother was not at fault.

This story from the Los Angeles Times offers one small example, one “little picture” as one of my journalism professors liked to say, of what happens when bad reporting manages to terrify an entire county agency.  By bad reporting, I am not referring to this particular story.

Here’s the lead:

A Great Dane snatched a 6-month-old baby from her mother's arms in Monrovia and ran with the girl in his mouth before dropping her in the street, authorities said Wednesday.

The baby's mother was talking in the doorway of a neighbor's home Monday when the 180-pound dog rushed out, slammed into her, snatched the baby with his jaws and ran off, said Lt. Michael Lee of the Monrovia Police Department.

The infant has been hospitalized, but is expected to live.

The police already have investigated and found no crime.  But just in case the infant and mother have not suffered enough, in the midst of all the other stress for this mother, the police department says DCFS is "pushing an investigation" – a choice of words which makes clear what the police think of the idea.

And who knows?  If at any point in her past this mother had a child abuse report filed against her, or once committed a crime or is in any other way something other than pure-as-the-driven-snow, the chances are excellent that this infant’s suffering will be compounded by being taken from the mother and placed with strangers.

Of course the reason DCFS is “pushing an investigation” is because they’re terrified that if they don’t, and then it’s revealed that the mother has a long, questionable history, that will be the topic of Garrett Therolf’s next front-page hatchet job.  That is the bad reporting I'm talking about.  And that is the essence of foster-care panic.

Yes, it’s possible that the investigation will uncover a horrible mother one incident short of being the next front-page tragedy (or maybe uncover some discrepancy in the mother’s and other witness accounts of this incident that the police missed). Such cases also could turn up if DCFS started simply investigating families at random – or tried to investigate every family. 

Everything in child welfare comes down to balancing harms.  In this case, the risk of putting so much extra stress on a mother who nearly lost her child in a horrible accident, and the risk of needless foster care, and the risk that the time wasted while DCFS is “pushing an investigation” will cause DCFS to overlook some other child in real danger, all outweigh the much smaller risk that this particular mother will be the next brutal, sadistic killer mom - if DCFS has the common decency to leave her alone.

So here it is, one small indication of the pain that Garrett Therolf’s “reporting” is inflicting across Los Angeles County.

UPDATE, DEC. 19: The Times has another excellent editorial today, this time supporting opening court hearings in these cases to the press and the public.  The Times notes that DCFS has changed its position and now supports openness, and the Board of Supervisors will lobby the state legislature to make the change – something Therolf has never bothered to report.  More about this later in the week.