Monday, July 25, 2011

Foster care in Los Angeles: NOW he tells us: The frustrating, mundane causes of DCFS failure

After years of trying to whip Southern California into a frenzy about some kind of Vast Family Preservation Conspiracy, after a failed effort to scapegoat a waiver from federal funding restrictions and, of course, after doing enormous harm to children by setting off a foster-care panic, Los Angeles Times reporter Garrett Therolf finally noticed: According to a Therolf story published on July 18 about an investigation commissioned by the county Board of Supervisors, the real reasons children “known to the system” sometimes die typically are things like buying the wrong computers so workers can’t get the information they need, or not being able to get the best people to work the toughest jobs. 

These are the real horror stories – children dying for reasons that are even more tragic because they are so mundane.

But when there’s no Grand Unifying Theory there’s no quick fix.  When workers know the Times is ready to scapegoat them if they leave any child home and something goes wrong, it’s one more disincentive to stay in the toughest jobs.   And when the real problems involve overloaded workers, setting off a foster-care panic makes everything worse.  That can be seen in another recent Therolf story, about children sleeping in an office building.

Therolf blamed it on

“ a chronic shortage of foster homes throughout the United States as fewer families prove willing or able to care for the most difficult-to-handle children.”

The problem is not “a chronic shortage of foster parents.”  If that were true, then children would be warehoused in office buildings throughout the United States all the time.  They aren’t.

It is happening in Los Angeles now because the Times’ hype-and-hysteria-filled “reporting” falsely scapegoating efforts to keep families together whenever a  child dies has derailed efforts to curb needless removal of children.  With caseworkers terrified of landing on the front page if they leave any child home and something goes wrong, they tear apart more families needlessly.  There are plenty of children who are not abused until DCFS takes them away.  The problem isn’t too few foster parents, it’s too many foster children.  (For details see our report on Los Angeles child welfare.)

When children have been warehoused in office buildings in other cities, and it has happened several times over the years, it’s almost always in the wake of foster-care panics, just like the one the Times started in Los Angeles.

So while many people share responsibility for all the suffering this has caused to children and their families, Garett Therolf and his editors at the Los Angeles Times rank high on that list.


Just as disturbing is this conclusion from the report to the Supervisors concerning a series of  checklists known as “Structured Decision Making” (SDM).  The report to the supervisors also found that

 child welfare officials need to reexamine the use of a computer program called Structured Decision Making, which is designed to measure a child's risk of maltreatment. Currently, the report said, the program is used "improperly or not at all."

The Supervisors do indeed need to reexamine its use – but not to use it even more.  Rather it needs to be reexamined for racial bias.

 In Los Angeles, caseworkers use the checklists to assess the functioning of a family.  They add up the score and they’re supposed to transmit the information to a computer.  The computer, not the caseworker, then decides if the child is supposed to be removed.  Or as the headline on a Therolf story in 2009 put it: “How computers call the shots for L.A. County children in peril; Social workers feed in data on suspected abuse and neglect, and a decision pops out.” 

While it was not the intent either of DCFS or the creators of SDM, when used this way, SDM turns into what amounts to computerized racial profiling.

This is discussed in detail in material we released at a news conference in Los Angeles in 2009 (See Page 17).  At the time DCFS itself acknowledged that SDM may have contributed both to an increase in removals of children from the home and an increase in racial disproportionality – that is, removal of minority children from their homes at a rate greater than their representation in the general population.

But the problem isn’t limited to Los Angeles.  One of the best reports on racial bias in child welfare in any state, the Michigan Race Equity Review found profound bias in SDM in that state.

And this year, an evaluation by the respected Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that using SDM may have increased racial bias in child removals in that state – though the researchers caution other factors also may have been at play.

In response, the people who came up with SDM – and peddle it to child welfare systems all over the country and internationally - have the same standard answers: If a finding is unfavorable to SDM, the researchers got it wrong or the people using SDM didn’t use it right.

But if SDM is that hard to use then that, in itself, is a problem. Its use should be suspended until its proponents can prove they have a model that isn’t biased against minorities – and which is within the capabilities of child welfare systems to use correctly.