Wednesday, April 13, 2016

There is nothing “incomprehensible” about the latest child welfare failure in Texas

The Dallas Morning News reports that, in response to the latest child abuse death in Texas involving a child “known to the system,” four-year-old Leiliana Wright, State Rep. Chris Turner, a Democrat whose district includes the town where the tragedy took place tweeted this:

“Incomprehensible failure of Govt.”

He’s wrong.

It’s a horrible failure of government, a tragic failure of government and an abysmal failure of government, and I don't doubt that Rep. Turner is sincere in wanting to do something about it.

But it is entirely comprehensible.  It happens over and over in Texas, year after year.  And while Republicans bear most of the responsibility – because they run the state government - Democrats who can think of no alternative other than spending more (which is necessary) without also spending smarter (which is just as necessary) share some of the blame.

That’s not hindsight.  NCCPR issued a comprehensive analysis of Texas child welfare in 2005.  Several years later, the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a liberal Texas think tank, issued a report in which it found that taking away more children does nothing to reduce child abuse fatalities.

And while we’re considering responsibility, some of it rests with those in the Texas press corps who have covered the issue year after year after year and written pretty much the same stories or columns year after year after year, all the while systematically ignoring the problem that leads to most of the others: the needless removal of children from their homes.

Because it’s all those unnecessary investigations and needless removals that are overloading caseworkers to the point that, at best, they can’t possibly find all the children in real danger or at worst, as may be the case in the most recent horror, they don’t try.

One exception is Randy Wallace of KRIV-TV in Houston.  Consider this case he reported on last week:

In addition to all the harm done to this father’s children by being consigned to the hellscape of Texas foster care, consider all the time and resources spent investigating this case, hauling the family into court and finding placements for the children.  All that time money and effort was, in effect, stolen from finding the next Leiliana Wright.

It’s not the first time Houston CPS rushed to confuse poverty with neglect.  Here’s another example.

So why do reporters keep covering the story the same old way – in Texas and elsewhere? 

In the worst cases, it’s an example of what David Simon aptly calls “Pulitzer sniffing.”  Of all the stories you can do in child welfare, the “Who Let [name of child] Die?” story, or better yet, the entire series on the children the child protective services agency “allowed” to die, is the quickest way to cheap glory within the profession.

But like most people in the system itself, most reporters are well-motivated.  So the answer may lie in another video: this 11-minute Ted-X talk from Molly McGrath Tierney, someone who is trying to run a child welfare system the right way:

 In particular I’m struck by what she says about why caseworkers keep taking so many children, knowing – in their heads, at least – how much harm it does them.  It’s at about four minutes and 16 seconds in, where she says:
“[I]t feels good to save kids. We get a great injection of adrenaline when we rush in and our brain responds to that stimuli just like we do anything else that feels good — we want more of it. And when we figure out how to keep returning to that good feeling, we start thinking that, in and of itself, is success. We start mistaking something that feels good to us for something that’s actually helping other people — ‘cause it feels so good, we must be doing the right thing.”
She could as easily have been speaking of a lot of journalists – the ones who actually are well-motivated but who get their righteous-indignation high from writing the “boy-do-I-hate-child-abuse-and-look-how-I-care-more-than-anyone-else” column, or the news story dripping with sneer and swagger instead of the kind of sophistication and nuance Simon calls for.  It feels so good – so they figure they must be doing the right thing.

At best such reporting diverts attention from the real problems besetting child welfare  - and from real solutions.  At worst it encourages foster-care panics, with workers rushing to tear apart many more families needlessly rather than risk being on the front page if they leave a child at home and something goes wrong.

And then, once the panic takes place, papers like the Dallas Morning News solemnly proclaim in an editorial that there has been “a spike in the number of children removed from dangerous home situations.”  In some cases, those home situations really were dangerous; in others they were not.  But the editorial writers, dependent on their own paper’s news coverage, would have little way of knowing that.

I can hear the reporters’ responses now: Oh, so you want us to let incompetent workers and administrators get away with it!  You want to let them stay on the job and let more children die! You want us to ignore child abuse deaths!  You don’t care if children die!

All of which is fully in keeping with the sneer-and-swagger ethos of those journalists.  And all of which is b------t.

The solution to the problems of journalism is more journalism. Those of us who want better child welfare journalism want reporters to do more.  We want reporters to hold caseworkers and administrators accountable, and draw the distinction between accountability and scapegoating, and report on children wrongfully removed from their homes, and report on real solutions.

It’s not that hard. Because some journalists have been getting it right for years, we have a web page full of examples to learn from.

Read more about how to fix child welfare in Texas