Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Foster care in Los Angeles: Sunshine is good for children


            The Los Angeles Times editorial board has written another very good editorial on child welfare and, in the process, once again embarrassed Garrett Therolf, the embattled reporter for the beleaguered Times.

            It seems that one of the last things Trish Ploehn did before she was removed from her job was reverse DCFS’ former opposition to opening court hearings in abuse and neglect cases to press and public.  That’s something I’d first suggested to Plohen when we met nearly three years ago, long before the current controversy.  The Board of Supervisors agreed and voted to ask the California Legislature to change state law to open these hearings.

            The Legislature should listen.

            Since 1980, well over a dozen states have opened court hearings in these kinds of cases, and not one has closed them again.  That’s because all the fears of critics proved groundless – indeed in many states, one-time critics of openness now are among the biggest boosters of open courts. 

            While it is impossible to guarantee absolutely that no child ever will be embarrassed by an open court hearing, this much we know: When the system is fully open and accountable, and everyone knows that, if they cut corners, someone may be watching, more children are likely to live long enough to blush.  The former chief judge of New York’s highest court, Judith Kaye, who opened these hearings in New York put it best.  Said Judge Kaye: “Sunshine is good for children.”

           The reasons open courts are better for children are discussed in detail in our Due Process Agenda so I won’t elaborate on it here.  I do have one question for the Times editorial board, though: How did you guys find out about this?

            I ask because even though he’s spent months complaining about secrecy at DCFS (often with good reason) Garrett Therolf never bothered to report the agency’s reversal in its position or the Supervisors’ vote.  To find out about it, you had to either have been notified directly by DCFS and/or the supervisors, or you had to read it at WitnessLA, which had the story three weeks ago, or you had to read the memo I sent to NCCPR’s list of reporters and advocates in Los Angeles that included a link to the WitnessLA story.

            Presumably, Therolf didn’t report the story because he’s one of those with the most to lose if better reporters can walk into court at any time and see all sides of the story – particularly the sides Therolf keeps refusing to report.  (Once again, I am applying the David Lauter standard – the Times Assistant Managing Editor has made clear it’s perfectly o.k. to “presume” whatever you want about someone with whom you disagree.)

            The Times editorial argues that opening these hearings will help reporters find answers to questions like these:

            Does DCFS remove too many children from their homes when there are allegations of abuse? Does it leave too many in the hands of abusive parents or reunite them too quickly?

            In fact, what they will find is that the answer to both questions is: Yes.

            Like most child welfare agencies, DCFS is arbitrary, capricious and cruel. It errs in all directions at once. Wrongful removal overloads caseworkers so they have less time to find children in real danger. That’s one reason the foster-care panic started by Therolf’s reporting, has made everything worse, something illustrated in the previous post to this Blog.