Saturday, May 29, 2010

Foster care in Oregon: Noah Kirkman probably is going home (and the Oregonian doesn’t like it one bit)


After nearly two years of needless foster care, Noah Kirkman probably will be going home. Thanks largely to public pressure, an Oregon judge has relented and ordered Noah returned to his native Canada to live, at least initially, with his grandparents.

But it won't happen immediately and there is no deadline. So there is plenty of time for mischief.

While it's not likely, the judge could change his mind. The Oregon Department of Human Services, which dithered for nearly two years, could stall the process further. Once back home, Noah's fate will be up to child welfare agencies in Canada, which generally are no better than their American counterparts. And while a kinship placement beats stranger care, there is no reason Noah shouldn't have been returned directly to his mother, Lisa Kirkman.

So it's a victory, but a small one and a fragile one. And it never can undo the damage done to Noah by Oregon's DHS, and a tendency among some in Oregon toward a smug sense of superiority over pretty much anyone who isn't from Oregon, a smugness nurtured by the state's largest newspaper.

On the other hand, it illustrates the value of the one area in which Oregon is the most progressive state in America: opening court hearings in child welfare cases.

The basics of how Noah Kirkman wound up in foster care are in this earlier post to the Blog, so I won't repeat them here.


But the fundamental failure in this case and so many others was aptly, if inadvertently, summed up by the judge who prolonged it for so long, Lane County Juvenile Court Judge Kip Leonard:

"I am confident in my legal decision that Noah return to Canada," said Leonard, according to the Eugene Register-Guard. "I am not as confident in my social decision."

Your what?

It is not a judge's job to make "social decisions" and it aptly sums up the arrogance of the child welfare system that Judge Leonard seems to feel otherwise.

It is precisely the penchant to make "social decisions" as in, "never mind what the law says, I think this child would be better off with people who are more like me" that wreaks havoc in the lives of tens of thousands of children caught up in the system. These are children trapped in foster care precisely because their parents are not like "us" – they are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately minority. And that's precisely why the U.S Supreme Court has made clear that child welfare agencies and judges are not free to engage in "comparison shopping" between foster parents and birth parents. They cannot reach the issue of "best interests" until determining that the birth parent is unfit.

Though the instruction is widely ignored, the law effectively instructs judges and even child welfare agencies to stay the hell out of "social decisions." The failure to heed this instruction helps explain why Oregon takes away children at a rate 70 percent above the national average.

Contrary to what the Oregonian claimed in its commentary-disguised-as-a-news-story about the case today, it is not the job of child welfare agencies or judges to "try to find the best placement for the child." That is a something they don't get to do until and unless the judge finds that a birth parent is unfit. Until then, their job is supposed to be limited to deciding if it is safe for the child to live with her or his birth parents. The question is whether the parent can provide a minimum standard of care, not some judge's arbitrary notion of what is "best." (In this case even that was going too far. In this case, the job of DHS and the judge was to turn the case over to Canadian authorities so they could make that determination.)

That's not because children don't deserve more than the minimum – rather, it's because when we let child welfare agencies and judges decide what is "best" we open a Pandora's Box of racial, class and geographic biases. And that is contrary to the best interests of all children. (The way we help children get more than the minimum is to provide the help their own parents need to give it to them.)


A pure "best interests" test almost always becomes a "better off" test. The foster family is better off financially so it is assumed that the child will be better off with them. The white, middle-class family with the tidy home is so much more like what people in the system themselves usually know best, that they almost never will view a child as "better off" with poor Black birth parents. And, of course, my country is always better than your country.

Recall the case of nine-year-old Sean Goldman, the boy from New Jersey abducted by his Brazilian mother. He lived in Brazil for five years while his American father fought to get him back. The Brazilian courts were not about to cede their obligation to decide what was best for this child of a Brazilian mother to authorities in the United States.

Public opinion overwhelmingly was with the father – in America, anyway. No one in the United States even thought to apply a pure "best interests" test, even though Sean had been living in Brazil with little contact with his father since he was four years old, and probably didn't want to go back to his father – which is exactly what his Brazilian relatives claimed.

It isn't even just other nations. After Florida botched a case that also involved Wisconsin, a Wisconsin columnist wrote an amazingly smug column about how people in Wisconsin are simply so much more generous and caring and it could never possibly happen there. (For the record, Florida probably has a better child welfare system overall, and Miami does a far better job than Milwaukee.)

It's well worth keeping the Goldman case in mind when considering how the Oregonian covered Friday's hearing – the first time it deigned to cover the story at all.

In addition to wrongly describing the proper standard to apply as the child welfare agency's and the judge's opinion of what is "best," the Oregonian led its story as follows:

An Oregon judge Friday ordered a 12-year-old boy sent back to Canada, his home country, even though the boy doesn't want to go. … On Friday, the boy did not appear in court, but he did spend a half-hour talking privately with Judge Kip Leonard ahead of the hearing. Leonard said they talked about catching mice and snakes, middle school and family. "He told me where he wants to be," Leonard said. "He told me he'd like to stay in Oregon and have his mother and grandparents come to visit."

Apparently, Noah didn't know that his mother isn't allowed to cross the border because of her "criminal record" – growing marijuana for a medical marijuana dispensary.

In addition, Noah's contact with his mother has been limited to closely-monitored fifteen-minute phone calls every two weeks. His mother says the calls are censored. She says she was not allowed to tell Noah she was fighting to get him back or even to tell him how much she missed him. [UPDATE, MAY 30: Lisa Kirkman told the Canadian Press the calls sometimes didn't happen for three to six weeks - because DHS would allow them only during their office hours, when it was more convenient for DHS to have a censor on the line. Those hours often conflicted with Lisa's work and Noah's school. Lisa couldn't even talk to Noah on his birthday, because it fell on a Sunday this year.]

Now, add to that being bounced from foster home to foster home before finally landing in the one he likes, and one can see how Noah Kirkman might feel abandoned by his mother and resentful of her.

But let's assume none of that was involved in Noah's feelings. (We're also assuming that what third parties have said on Noah's behalf is accurate. UPDATE: MAY 30: Noah's grandparents say he is, in fact, excited to be going home. In any event, there is no excuse for the Oregonian portraying Noah's alleged desire to remain in his foster home as known fact, without so much as attribution.)

But again, let's assume he doesn't want to go home. It's still not his decision. No more than the seventh grader who doesn't want to leave his middle-school crush has the right to stay behind if his parents move to another city.

Sean Goldman almost certainly didn't want to return to New Jersey after living in Brazil from age 4 to age 9, and having almost no contact with his father for much of that time.

If I kidnap a child at birth, flee to Canada, take really good care of him, and return five years later, that child definitely won't want to return to his parents. It's hard to imagine a newspaper siding with the kidnapper. But siding with the kidnapper is the logical outcome when "social decisions" are allowed to replace legal ones, and an arbitrary definition of "best interests of the child" is allowed to supplant the best interests of children to live in a just society.


The Oregonian story goes on to dredge up everything it can find to cast Noah's mother in the worst possible light. There are lots of weasel words like "may have been" and "questions about" and vague attribution like "testimony … indicated…" There's lots of dependence on "psychological assessments" which, when it comes to reliability, are about one step up from voodoo. (See the story on Page 13 of this issue of the New York City publication Child Welfare Watch for an excellent discussion of how they really work. Or check out the Michigan Race Equity Review, which documents cut-and-paste "psych evals," in which evaluators take boilerplate they wrote about one case and apply it to another.)

Nevertheless, it is perfectly reasonable to include this material in a news story, though there should have been much clearer attribution. What is unreasonable is the fact that nowhere in the story does Noah's mother, or the grandparents, or her lawyers get a chance to respond. And there is no discussion of the consequences of moving Noah from foster home to foster home.

The Oregonian also gives DHS a free ride in defending why the case took so long. According to the Oregonian:

Gloria Anderson, international affairs manager for Oregon's child welfare system, said the state worked closely with Canadian officials from Day One to find a way to get the boy back to his home country.

And the reason about 700 days passed since "Day One" before it might happen is…? The Oregonian doesn't say.

In fact, it is likely that DHS dithered all this time precisely because of the Oregonian, which whipped the state into a jingoistic frenzy after DHS sent a child to relatives in Mexico who killed her. DHS' actions suggest it's been terrified about international cases ever since.

The Oregonian continues:

Because the boy was in Oregon and under the state's legal jurisdiction, simply putting him on a plane and delivering him to Canadian child welfare officials was not an option, Anderson said. "We have an obligation, a legal and ethical obligation to ensure his safety."

Translation: We in Oregon know more about child welfare and care more about safety than those dumb Canadians. (Or, as they might put it in Brazil: We Brazilians know more about child welfare and what's best for Sean Goldman than those dumb Americans.)

And the evidence for this would be? In fact, delivering Noah to Canadian child welfare officials does every bit as much, if not more, to "ensure his safety" as leaving him to the tender mercies of the Oregon foster care system.


This case also is more evidence of the urgent need to end the secrecy that surrounds child welfare.

Nothing moved on this case until Lisa Kirkman went public. Nothing happened until The Register-Guard wrote a detailed, and scrupulously even-handed, story about the case. Then it picked up steam in Canadian media and ultimately in Oregon – except for the Oregonian. It looks like only then did DHS decide that the political winds had shifted and sending Noah home would do them less political damage than keeping him indefinitely in Oregon.

But those news accounts wouldn't have been enough, and might not even have been possible, if not for the fact that in Oregon, reporters who might otherwise be too skeptical to even consider Lisa Kirkman's pleas, can go into court to see for themselves.

Not only is Oregon one of only about 17 states with open court hearings, Oregon may be the only state where judges can't close them on a case-by-case basis.

All of which infuriated Judge Leonard. According to a brief item that appeared on the Register Guard website last night, but does not appear to be there today, the judge attacked the media for even covering the case – arguing, as bad judges and bad child welfare administrators always do, that it would be harmful to the child. In fact, it only harmed the reputation of Judge Leonard. And with the press looking on, he no longer could substitute his personal whims and prejudices – his "social decisions" - for the law.

There's one other piece of good news in all this: Judge Leonard is retiring.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

When destroying your OWN family just isn’t enough

Lynn and Bryan Blevins of Conway, South Carolina did not torture their three children. They did not rape them. They did not break their bones. But one day, their ten-year-old and their eight-year-old got into a fight, as siblings sometimes do. One of the boys wound up with scratches on his face.

As a very good columnist, Issac Bailey of the Myrtle Beach Sun-News, reported last year (in a column that, unfortunately, is not available online), the police saw it for what it was; a normal part of childhood. But a caseworker for the South Carolina Department of Social Services concluded that the fight must be a sign of deeper problems in the home. That was enough for her to confiscate all three children and throw them into foster care.

And now, thanks to a new South Carolina law, holding children like the Blevins' in foster care for just six months will become grounds to tear them from their parents forever.

The same applies to children taken from parents just because those parents are poor – or for any other reason.

The South Carolina Supreme Court has ruled that the passage of time alone is reason enough to sever family ties permanently, even when DSS itself contributed to the delay. (In contrast, the Illinois Supreme Court wisely said the same provision in that state's law was unconstitutional.) Now, South Carolina DSS need merely "run out the clock" to have grounds to tear apart families like the Blevins after six months.

After 18 months the bill requires termination of parental rights, no matter what. So DSS can take a child, provide no help to the family, stall for 18 months and be guaranteed that the child never will go home.

The law even prohibits courts from considering whether an adoptive home really is available when deciding whether to terminate parental rights. What this law really guarantees for many children is prolonged foster care and creation of more "legal orphans," with no ties to birth parents and no hope of adoption either.

Indeed, we've already seen it across the country. For more than a decade, the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act has ordered states to seek termination of parental rights when children have been in foster care for 15 months. The result: a 70 percent increase in the number of children who "age out" of foster care at age 18 with no home at all.

That's why much of the rest of the country has begun to turn away from this termination-at-all-costs mentality. But not South Carolina, which remains mired in the failed approaches of the 1990s.

There was, of course, a signing ceremony when the bill became law Tuesday. Adopted children were brought in to serve as props for the photo op as the Governor of South Carolina offered up platitudes about the importance of family.

That would be Gov. Mark Sanford. And, after all, who would know more about family values?

Monday, May 24, 2010

The most common lie in child welfare (It’s the one about the rate of abuse in foster care)

I have a question for the child welfare professionals reading this blog.

Suppose, hypothetically, you could gather in one room 200 former foster children, all of whom had been in foster care for up to one year. Suppose all of them felt free to give open, honest answers to any question you asked them. And suppose you asked them this: "How many of you were abused while you were in foster care?"

How many of you child welfare professionals would expect that only one of those 200 former foster children would raise her or his hand?

Of course you wouldn't expect that. You know the very idea that only one in 200 former children is abused in foster care is absurd. Indeed, this oft-repeated claim may be the most common lie in American Child Welfare. So why do some of you, and you know who you are, keep perpetuating that lie when you talk to the press and the public?

The people who make this claim don't put it in a way which makes the notion so obviously preposterous, of course. Typically, they obscure the absurdity by using percentages.

One child welfare agency chief recently told a legislative committee, presumably with a straight face, that more than 99.5 percent of the foster children in his state were not abused in foster care in the past year. That's the equivalent of one foster child in 200.

It's not that he made up the number out of whole cloth. Rather, this is the number of cases where his own agency was made aware of an abuse allegation in foster care and substantiated it.

The problem here should be obvious.


When a child welfare agency investigates an allegation of abuse in foster care it is, in effect, investigating itself. Even though an employee of the agency didn't inflict the abuse, the agency chose the foster parent who did or placed the child in the group home or institution where a staffer did it, or put the child in the placement where another foster child did it. So there is an enormous incentive to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, and write no evil in the case file.

Contrast this kind of official figure to what former foster child Rose Garland said on the PBS series Frontline:

I know that there are good foster families out there, OK? But I also know that every foster kid that I have ever talked to, including myself, have been abused in foster homes. And I'm talking physically, emotionally and sexually.

Or consider what Marcia Lowry, who runs the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights – a group that has proven itself over and over to be profoundly hostile to family preservation - recently told the Philadelphia Daily News:

I've been doing this work for a long time and represented thousands and thousands of foster children, both in class-action lawsuits and individually, and I have almost never seen a child, boy or girl, who has been in foster care for any length of time who has not been sexually abused in some way, whether it is child-on-child or not.


But that's just "anecdotal evidence." What does the research tell us? It tells us that the official figures are b------t.

Except as noted, the studies below define foster care generically – that is they include group homes and institutions. So don't think for a moment that the problem can be avoided by going back to the orphanage. On the contrary, when studies are limited to institutions, the rate of abuse tends to be even worse.


· A study of reported abuse in Baltimore, found the rate of "substantiated" cases of sexual abuse in foster care more than four times higher than the rate in the general population.
(Mary I. Benedict and Susan Zuravin, Factors Associated With Child Maltreatment by Family Foster Care Providers (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health, June 30, 1992)).

· Using the same methodology, an Indiana study found three times more physical abuse and twice the rate of sexual abuse in foster homes than in the general population. In group homes there was more than ten times the rate of physical abuse and more than 28 times the rate of sexual abuse as in the general population, in part because so many children in the homes abused each other. (William Spencer and Dean D. Kundsen, "Out of Home Maltreatment: An Analysis of Risk in Various Settings for Children," Children And Youth Services Review Vol. 14, pp. 485-492, 1992).

· A study of foster children in Oregon and Washington State found that nearly one third reported being abused by a foster parent or another adult in a foster home. The study did not even ask about one of the most common forms of abuse in foster care, foster children abusing each other. (Peter Pecora, et. al., Improving Family Foster Care: Findings from the Northwest Foster Care Alumni Study (Seattle: Casey Family Programs, 2005). And see our full analysis of this study here).

· Another Baltimore study, this one examining case records, found abuse in 28 percent of the foster homes studied more than one in four. (Memorandum and Order of Judge Joseph G. Howard, L.J. v.
Massinga, United States District Court for the District of Maryland, July 27, 1987.)

· A study of cases in metropolitan Atlanta found that among children whose case goal was adoption, 34 percent had experienced abuse, neglect, or other harmful conditions. For those children who had recently entered the system, 15 percent had experienced abuse, neglect or other harmful conditions in just one year – that's 30 times the widely-quoted official figure. (Children's Rights, Inc., "Expert research report finds children still unsafe in Fulton and DeKalb foster care," press release, Nov. 5, 2004.)

· Even what is said to be a model foster care program, where caseloads are kept low and workers and foster parents get special training, is not immune. When alumni of the Casey Family Program were interviewed, 24 percent of the girls said they were victims of actual or attempted sexual abuse in foster care. Furthermore, this study asked only about abuse in the one foster home the children had been in the longest. A case in which a child quickly was moved from a foster home precisely because she was abused there wouldn't even be counted. (David Fanshel, et. al., Foster Children in a Life Course Perspective (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p.90.) Officials at the program say they have since lowered the rate of all forms of abuse to "only" 12 percent, but this is based on an in-house survey of the program's own caseworkers, not outside interviews with the children themselves. (How Are The Children Doing? Assessing Youth Outcomes in Family Foster Care. (Seattle: Casey Family Program, 1998)).

Except for part of the Atlanta study, these studies sometimes ask if children had been abused at any point during their time in foster care, while the official rates are for one year only. An apples-to-apples comparison would require doubling or tripling the official figure, since the average length of stay in foster care is 27.2 months. But that still leaves an official rate that vastly underestimates the real rate of abuse in foster care.

This does not mean that all, or even many, foster parents are abusive. The overwhelming majority do the best they can for the children in their care -- like the overwhelming majority of parents, period. But the abusive minority is large enough to cause serious concern. And abuse in foster care does not always mean abuse by foster parents. As noted above, it also can mean foster children abusing each other.

If some people who run child welfare agencies or child advocacy organizations and use the absurdly low official figures for abuse in foster care don't know about this research, then they are inexcusably ignorant. If they do know, and quote the official figures anyway, then they need to stop lying.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Still another Michigan foster care failure


It would be hard to find a case that better sums up the dismal state of child welfare in Michigan – and much of the rest of the country – than the story of a little boy named Johnny; a story beautifully told last month by Detroit television station WXYZ, Channel 7.

Johnny was born with cerebral palsy and epilepsy. He could not walk, talk or feed himself. No one ever accused Johnny's mother, Elena Andron, of abusing Johnny. She did not beat him, she did not torture him, she did not abuse him sexually. On the contrary, Elena devoted herself to caring for her severely-disabled son. Elena persevered – until she lost her job.

Then she made a terrible mistake, one that would prove fatal for Johnny: She asked the Michigan Department of Human Services for help.

DHS could have offered her basic financial assistance while Elena looked for a new job. They did not. DHS could have sent in home health aides to take care of Johnny. They didn't do that either. Instead, DHS offered Elena only one option: put Johnny in foster care until she could get back on her feet financially. (If you're wondering how this jibes with the common claim by child welfare agencies that they never confuse poverty with "neglect" - it doesn't.)

DHS, which would provide no financial help so Elena could care for Johnny herself, was only too glad to fork over $12,000 per month – yes, per month – to a group home for Johnny's care.

They also threw in a food allowance.

But somehow, it seems, not much of the food made it to Johnny.

He starved to death – literally suffering in silence, unable to feed himself or tell anyone what was going on. Johnny weighed 120 pounds when first left to the tender mercies of DHS and the group home. He weighed only 48 pounds when he died.


Of course, Elena could see what was happening when she visited. She complained to DHS.

The response from DHS and the group home: They went to court to bar Elena from even visiting her son. The court promptly rubber-stamped the request.

Elena Andron never saw her son alive again.

Sadly, there is nothing surprising about any of this. As we explained in our reports on Michigan child welfare, DHS doesn't really run child welfare in Michigan, the state's powerful network of private agencies effectively is in charge.

So it's no wonder a private group home could collect $12,000 per month for Johnny's "care," while Elena could get nothing.

And thanks to, among others, the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights, (CR) the chances of another such tragedy have increased. CR's settlement in Michigan encouraged DHS to divert already meager funds to help children like Johnny stay in their own homes into hiring more child abuse investigators and foster care workers.

And another clause of the settlement only adds more poignancy to one of the comments Elena Andron made to WXYZ:

"I thought [the people at the group home] were good people. They were licensed."

Ah, yes, licensure – CR's Holy Grail. Thanks to CR's fanaticism about licensing, hundreds of Michigan children have been forced out of the homes of their own grandparents and other relatives. Too bad CR apparently is far more interested in expelling children from those homes than in demanding alternatives to forcing children into group homes when their parents are poor. And too bad CR's definition of "children's rights" apparently didn't include Johnny's right to live safely in his own home.

DHS also is using savings from cutting family preservation to provide big rate increases to group homes and institutions. (Perhaps they feel $12,000 a month just isn't enough.)


How this tragedy first gained prominent public notice is a story of a different kind of failure.

Having worked both in print and broadcast journalism, I've seen the way practitioners of the former look down on practitioners of the latter, dismissing television as slick and superficial, lacking the depth that, supposedly, only a newspaper can provide.

But even though Detroit is one of America's few remaining two-newspaper towns, both Detroit dailies dismissed Johnny's story with brief news items when his mother filed a civil lawsuit.

We saw those stories and mentioned Johnny's case in our first report on Michigan child welfare.

That's where a producer for the investigative unit of WXYZ-TV first saw it.

The television station then took the story and ran with it, spending months investigating the case, and devoting nearly seven minutes of one of its local news programs to telling Johnny's story.

Yes, newspapers have endured staff cuts that boggle the mind. But broadcast news organizations always have been smaller than their print counterparts. Yet somehow, WXYZ found the time and the resources.

Johnny is dead. But thanks to WXYZ-TV, at least his story no longer is buried.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Foster care in Los Angeles: Still deep in denial at the LA Times

The latest big "revelation" from the Los Angeles Times concerning the county Department of Children and Family Services is that DCFS can't keep up with all the reports alleging child maltreatment. Gee, what a surprise.

The Times reports that more than 18,000 investigations remained open beyond the 30 days mandated by the state. Even when the state doubled the time allowed to complete an investigation, 3,700 such investigations could not be completed on time.

At least as alarming: Many investigations that are completed are too superficial, increasing the likelihood of bad decisions in all directions (though, of course, the Times didn't put it that way).

But the story attributes the problem solely to "too few staff burdened with a litany of new tasks intended to reduce the deaths of children whose families already had come under the department's scrutiny."

For starters, those new tasks almost certainly won't reduce child abuse deaths.
As this Blog often has noted, a major national study found that none of the traditional investigative and enforcement powers of CPS agencies actually accomplishes that. So DCFS would have been more likely to make children safer by putting those same resources into the few things that really do work, such as more prevention programs, and efforts to curb teen pregnancy and ameliorate the worst effects of poverty.

But, of course, the various new bureaucratic procedures aren't really designed to protect children. They are CYA measures, designed to protect caseworkers and, especially, their bosses, from being blamed for the next tragedy. (And they won't work anyway, since it's clear that the Times will scapegoat DCFS for any death of a child "known to the system" regardless of the circumstances – at least until editors lose interest, declare the "success" of their crusade and move on to something else).

More important, the Times story fails to mention the other likely cause of the backlog - the foster-care panic caused largely by the Times itself.

The kind of out-of-context hype and hysteria-fueled coverage of child abuse fatalities that has characterized the Times approach usually prompts a surge in false allegations and trivial cases - mostly from well-meaning people who are told over and over to report their slightest suspicion, no matter how absurd.

Operators at child abuse "hotlines" become more afraid to screen out such allegations, and workers become more afraid to label them unfounded - indeed, one of the new procedures in Los Angeles County makes it harder for workers to do just that.

So of course there is no way to keep up with the load - and, of course, more children are endangered – even as many other children are subjected to prolonged traumatic investigations and, in some cases, needlessly thrown into foster care.

And, of course, the Times story mentions almost none of this.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

More casualties of the Los Angeles foster care panic?

On May 6, Los Angeles Times columnist Sandy Banks wrote a very good column about Candie Sampson, an aunt who stepped forward to care for her sister's children in a time of crisis only to have those children torn away by the county Department of Children and Family Services.

The four children had been taken from their mother because of allegations of drug use and domestic violence. They were placed with a grandmother who died suddenly last month.

It was Sampson who told DCFS about the grandmother's death, and it was Sampson who brought the children to her own small apartment. According to Banks, Sampson "has an MBA, a university job, a construction-worker husband and a 1-year-old son. She spent part of her teen years in foster care. She and her sister didn't meet their father until they were adults and found him on Facebook."

Banks continues:
She bought each child a bed from IKEA. "My husband assembled them that night," she said. Two days later, a social worker came by for an "assessment." Sampson opened her life to prying eyes.

"I informed social services that I want for the kids to remain with my family," she said. And I informed [the social worker] that my husband has a criminal background, due to an addiction in his past. … We completed all the paperwork, provided letters of character references and went to be fingerprinted in less than 24 hours."

Then she waited -- not very patiently, I might add -- through three weeks of "no one talking to me," she said.

She had no standing in the system; the children's stay was considered an "extended visitation" not a "placement," social workers said.

Her apartment wasn't big enough, with just two bedrooms for seven people. And her husband needed a "criminal clearance."

She began looking for a bigger place and pushing the children's social worker to seek a waiver that would clear her husband, who has not used drugs in six years, she said.

"I call her every day all day," Sampson told me. "I leave messages and do not get return calls. I have to keep calling and hope that she answers the phone."

Sampson had spent years as a paid advocate for disabled college students. In that world, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and the students get services they need.

In this world of caseworkers and court orders, the squeaky wheel just gets extra scrutiny.
Sampson got a Monday-morning call from a DCFS supervisor, who promised to keep her in the loop, she said. Then she refused to take Sampson's calls.

By Tuesday night, three of the kids were gone. The 5- and 7-year-olds were placed together, and the 4-year-old went to a separate home, she said. He was crying when he left; she had to coax him out of his hiding place under the bed.

"The social workers won't tell me where they are," Sampson said. They did tell her to have the 14-year-old ready on Thursday to go.


Why would DCFS be so cruel to the children? Banks thinks it may be the very fact that Sampson kept pushing so impatiently to keep them. That may well be part of it. Whether they are birth parents, kinship parents or foster parents workers for child welfare agencies commonly like their parents docile, groveling and, above all, "compliant."

More than 20 years ago, when I was writing my book about child welfare, a Los Angeles lawyer referred to people like Sampson as "flunking the attitude test."

If that's what happened here, it would make her case poignantly similar to that of Jonathan Reid, taken from his mother Debra in part because she was an outspoken community advocate with an in-your-face style, according to a comprehensive account of the case in the now-defunct New Times Los Angeles. (I've been unable to find the superbly reported story, by Michael Gougis, online, but I have a copy.)

One can only hope the parallels end there, however. Because six weeks after he was taken, Jonathan Reid died in foster care.


But flunking the attitude test almost certainly isn't the only reason for this tragedy. Odds are, these children are casualties of the foster-care panic encouraged by the Los Angeles Times itself.

Imagine how certain of Banks' colleagues on the Times metro staff might have written this story had the children been left with Sampson and something had gone wrong. Every caseworker knows full well that such a story probably would read like this:

A [age and gender of child] is dead only weeks after the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services exploited a legal loophole to allow the child and three siblings to live in the desperately overcrowded home of an uncle who once had been convicted on drug charges.

The death comes at a time when the beleaguered DCFS already is under intense scrutiny in the wake of a series of deaths of children previously known to the agency. The deaths have raised questions about DCFS' emphasis on family preservation.

(In fact, there has been no "series" of deaths, but that hasn't stopped the Times from making the claim.)

That's a key reason why entries into foster care in Los Angeles have soared in the months since the Times started writing real stories very much like the hypothetical story above. And that's almost certainly why, having already endured separation from their mother and the death of their grandmother, the nieces and nephews of Candie Sampson now are separated from a loving aunt and from each other.

No, this does not mean caseworkers are right when they claim to be "damned if they do and damned if they don't." On the contrary, the caseworker who tore apart the Sampson family will face no sanction at all for doing so. The worst she may face is a column that does not even name her or him. In contrast, had this caseworker left the children in that home and tragedy followed, there is an excellent chance the worker would have been scapegoated by her bosses at DCFS. When it comes to taking away children, you're only damned if you don't.

If anyone at the Los Angeles Times really wants to know why these children are enduring such suffering, they could start by looking in their own newsroom.