Thursday, September 22, 2011

Foster care in D.C.: Another timely reminder of the price of panic

The previous post to this Blog described how some excellent reporting in New York Magazine exposed the true state of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, through the story of one caseworker and one supervisor.  A grandstanding district attorney charged them with criminally-negligent homicide after a child on their caseload died.  Their boss hung them out to dry.

While criminal charges are extremely rare, there is nothing unusual about politicians destroying the lives of child welfare caseworkers – and children – to boost their own fortunes. 

A prime example is former Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty.  As readers of this Blog will recall, after the bodies of the children of Banita Jacks were discovered, in January, 2008, Fenty fired everyone who came anywhere near that case, without pausing to check if they’d actually done anything wrong.

They hadn’t.

Last week, Washington Post metro columnist Petula Dvorak wrote about the price paid by the workers and by D.C.’s vulnerable children.

She writes:

Canning those social workers sent a chill across the agency that the city’s abused and neglected children are still paying for today.

Social workers make serious decisions every day, balancing the level of abuse or neglect in a dysfunctional family against the knowledge that removing any child from a home is additional trauma.

In the months after the Jacks case and the firings, social workers went with an “if in doubt, pull them out” policy, yanking hundreds of kids from their homes and placing them in foster care.

Everyone was worried that they had a Jacks case next door, so the agency also experienced a 600 percent increase in calls reporting suspected child abuse. Foster homes were packed. Social workers had gigantic caseloads.

The agency cratered. It has an interim director, the third person to head the agency since the Jacks case ripped it apart. And still, the latest report by a court monitor on the agency’s performance was not stellar.

Here’s how the children still pay:

The number of children torn from their homes soared in 2008, then declined but stayed above the pre-panic level, then soared again last year, to the highest level since 2005.  Washington D.C. takes away proportionately more children than Los Angeles, New York, Cleveland, Detroit, Atlanta and several other cities, even when rates of child poverty are factored in.

D.C. tears apart families at a rate nearly triple the rate in Miami and five times the rate of Chicago.  But in those communities independent court monitors have found that the reforms that curbed needless removal of children also made children safer.

And just this week the new D.C. Edition of The Huffington Post has a very good column about another D.C. child welfare outrage.

But on one point Dvorak is mistaken.  In describing the climate in 2008, she writes:  “who was going to listen to [the fired workers] back then?” 

Actually, she did. 

As a reporter at the time she wrote about the foster-care panic and its consequences when almost no one else was interested.  The story is worth rereading again – and every time a high-profile child welfare tragedy is in the news.

When Dvorak became a columnist she did not stop being a reporter.  Before writing her columns about the aftermath of the Jacks case, Dvorak did more reporting.  Issac Bailey of The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C. takes the same approach.  All the really good columnists do.  And as Dvorak notes in the column, doing her own reporting changed her view of the case and the role of the workers.

Perhaps that’s what The Great Regurgitator, Laurie Roberts of The Arizona Republic, is so afraid of – that if she actually did some reporting she might find out that the crap she’s been writing, over and over, in more than 40 columns is wrong.

Here’s what I’m afraid of.  I’m afraid that, given the state of the newspaper industry, a real reporter for the Republic – someone who went out and actually gathered news - may have been laid off or taken a buyout in order to keep Laurie Roberts employed.

UPDATE, OCTOBER 19: Laurie Roberts has just proven me wrong about those last two paragraphs.  I'm eating a bit of crow in a post here.