Thursday, July 5, 2012

Child welfare in Los Angeles: Children still suffer when parents “flunk the attitude test” – but the suffering no longer is secret

More than two decades ago, when I was writing Wounded Innocents, my book about the American child welfare system, a lawyer in Los Angeles told me about “the attitude test” – and how it can lead to every kind of child welfare tragedy.

It works this way:

Parents who really are guilty, even of serious maltreatment, sometimes can get away with it if they are “system-wise” and know how to put on a good act for a caseworker.  The parent who says “Oh, I am so very, very sorry.  I know I need help.  Please bestow upon me your ‘counseling’ and your ‘parent education’” may get her child returned over and over again, no matter how serious the abuse.  The parent who says “I’m innocent, damn it!” because she is, in fact, innocent, may lose her child forever. 

The attitude test is alive and well in Los Angeles (and everywhere else in America) but given how reporters tend to stereotype families, they often refuse to believe it – unless, of course, they see it for themselves.  Certainly, it’s unlikely that Garrett Therolf of the Los Angeles Times would ever have believed it, had he not seen it for himself.

He could see it because in February, Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Michael Nash, opened hearings in what is called “dependency court” to the media and, sometimes, to the public.

So Therolf saw a classic example of vindictive caseworkers punishing children because their mother “flunked the attitude test,” and he wrote a very good story about it.  (See also this excellent summary and analysis of the story from WitnessLA.)  And be sure to read to the end: The final paragraphs perfectly sum up American child welfare.

In the story, Marlene Furth, who works for the contractor that provides defense counsel for these families, did a very good job of putting the case into context. 

[Furth] called it an "outrageous case" of retaliation that she sees too often. It is "not a daily occurrence, but it is also not highly unusual," she said in an interview.

"The problem that exists," she said, "is that there are very very many dedicated workers and they work extraordinarily hard to reunify families, and then there are many workers who don't - either because they are burned out, overworked or reached a point where they don't care."

But, of course, had Furth's firm had gotten its way, we’d never know about this case.  That’s because her firm, contrary to the interests and desires of many of its clients, has been fighting against keeping these court hearings open – in part, I believe, because it would expose the poor quality of representation families often receive.