Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A reporter whitewashes racial bias in child welfare

In former Los Angeles Times reporter Garrett Therolf’s world, white people “marshal data.” Black people rely only on “folkways.”

Therolf has left the building. But he left behind  a story
permeated with racial bias.
UPDATE, FEB. 22: Compare Therolf's failure to how Laura Nahmias covered the same issue for Politico New York.

Imagine for a moment that a reporter on the criminal justice beat wrote a story claiming that there are “two theories” about the police and the African-American community: Either there is more crime in poor Black neighborhoods - because there is more poverty - or there is police brutality, harassment, needless stop-and-frisk searches, traumatic interrogations of the innocent, false arrests, etc.

One would hope such a journalist would be laughed out of the newsroom.

But, as is so often the case, the standards for child welfare, and for reporting on child welfare, are lower.

That brings me to the last two stories begun by reporter Garrett Therolf before he left the Los Angeles Times last year. He completed them while at his new job and they were published last week.

Several years ago, Therolf faced a lot of criticism on this blog and elsewhere for his child welfare coverage. Therolf is certainly not the only reason Los Angeles tears apart children at a rate well above the average for big cities, double the rate of New York and triple the rate of Chicago, but he’s a part of it.

One of his last Times stories follows a particular case through the Los Angeles County child welfare system.  That story actually is pretty good - except when it tries to deal directly with issues of race. And there are serious problems with a sidebar devoted specifically to that issue.

The error of either/or


Therolf begins the sidebar by noting that while eight percent of Los Angeles County children are Black, they represent 28 percent of the county’s foster children.  Then he writes:

There are basically two theories, and the approach an agency takes to addressing the problem depends, at least in part, on which theory it accepts. One holds that social worker bias against black parents is to blame. The other argues that black children truly are victimized at higher rates.

So it’s either/or, all-or-nothing.  This eliminates the obvious possibility that, as with criminal justice, because of poverty, both can be at play.

The problem is even more complicated in child welfare. Most state laws, including California’s effectively define poverty itself as “neglect.”*  So it’s easy to point to statistics and say: See? There’s more “neglect” in Black communities precisely because there is more poverty there – and that poverty is confused with “neglect.”

In addition, child abuse is related, in part, to stress. Poor people tend to be under more stress than rich people, and African-Americans are more likely to be poor. So again, the key issue is poverty.

But in the main story Therolf claims that on top of all the stress of being poor, the "prevailing view" is that Black parents are more prone to abuse their children “following generations of deprivation and inequity.”  (In fact, there is no "prevailing view" - but it certainly seems to be Therolf's view.)

In other words, Therolf suggests, past racism makes Black parents abusive, but there is no present racism affecting the decisions of child protective services workers.

Sadly, there are people in child welfare who believe this.  In fact, even as the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, a group not known to be dominated by bleeding-heart liberals, issues an apology to communities of color for racial bias in policing, a faction of liberals in child welfare denies their field even has a problem.

Apparently unlike in the police force, and pretty much every other aspect of American life, child welfare workers are simply so much better than other people that they have acquired a kind of magical immunity from the biases that plague mere mortals.

This is reflected in the willingness of some of my fellow liberals to forego everything they claim to believe in about civil liberties and due process when someone whispers the words “child abuse” in their ears.  Consider how, as is discussed here, some liberals, appalled by stop-and-frisk, embrace the use in child welfare of  “predictive analytics,” a similar infringement on civil liberties that boils down to computerized racial profiling.

Harvard’s resident extremist


Then Therolf tells us about a 2011 conference at Harvard on the topic.  What he does not tell us is that the conference was organized by the leader of the “denial” movement – Prof. Elizabeth Bartholet of Harvard Law School.  Bartholet’s views on child welfare are so extreme that if one takes the recommendations in her own book bashing family preservation seriously and literally (and surely we’ve learned by now that this is wise when dealing with extremists) states would have to take away at least two million children every year.**

She also proposes that every family in America with a young child be required to let in a government-approved “home visitor” to inspect their home at regular intervals from the child’s birth until school age. The visitors would be required to report to authorities anything they considered a threat to a child’s safety or “well-being.”  Bartholet is explicit in recommending this for purposes of, her word, “surveillance.”

Bartholet says this “would simply provide society with a realistic means of enforcing” laws against abusing and neglecting children. So would a surveillance camera mounted in every room of every home with no way to turn it off. Perhaps Bartholet didn’t suggest this because George Orwell thought of it first.

Nor does Therolf tell us that the conference was an exercise in deck-staking.  Bartholet decided who was invited to speak, and almost every speaker she chose shared her views.  Having listened to this parade of people who’d already decided that racial bias is not a problem, Therolf then tells us that the “prevailing view” among researchers is that racial bias is not a problem.

He also tells us that “Many left the conference believing that any caseworker bias against black families accounted for only a small portion of the disparity in foster care rates.” Of course they did. It’s what they believed when they walked in the door.

Double standards for describing experts


But where the story becomes most condescending is in its treatment of experts on each side.  First, he gives one paragraph to one of the few dissenters Bartholet invited to speak at the conference.  He writes that those who believe racism is a problem

…gained encouragement from University of Pennsylvania law professor Dorothy Roberts, who said: “If you came to any child dependency court in Chicago, in Los Angeles or in New York and had no preconceptions about what the purpose of the court was, you would probably leave thinking its purpose was to monitor and regulate and even tear apart black families.” 

He never mentions that Prof. Roberts (a member of NCCPR’s Board of Directors) also is the author of several books on issues of race in America and beyond, including Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (Basic Civitas Books, 2001).

Bartholet gets very different treatment.  There is no mention of her extremism. Instead, in a paragraph that sounds like it should have begun with “Some of her best friends are…” Therolf writes about how she was once, long ago, a real life civil rights lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense fund!  (So of course, anything she says about child welfare and race could not possibly be tainted by bias.)  This is like suggesting Ronald Reagan could not possibly have been out to break unions or enact a radical right-wing agenda as president because decades earlier he’d been a liberal and a union leader.

Bartholet didn’t rely on mere anecdote, Therolf tells us. Bartholet “marshaled data to argue that when poverty and neighborhood characteristics are used to analyze foster care rates, race disappears as an explanatory factor.”

Compare this with Therolf’s treatment of the next expert to appear in his story, Cheryl Grills. Dr. Grills is a clinical psychologist and director of the Psychology Applied Research Center at Loyola Marymount University.  She also served as Co-Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection. 

But Therolf identifies her only as “a professor at Loyola Marymount” who, Therolf claims, wants to “institutionalize child protection based on African and African-American folkways, not the latest studies and academic research.” [Emphasis added.]

Got that everyone? White people “marshal data.”  Black people just want to rely on anecdote and “folkways.”

It is offensive, and speaks to the extent of bias not just in child welfare but in newsrooms, that the following even needs to be pointed out:

The data are overwhelming that there is, in fact,

racial bias in child welfare.


Much of that data can be found in Prof. Roberts’ book.  NCCPR has prepared a short summary of some of the studies finding profound racial bias, over and above the class bias and other problems that permeate child welfare.

Therolf goes on to suggest that caseworkers can’t possibly be biased because many of them are, themselves, Black. He dismisses the notion that institutional bias can push any caseworker to treat less favored groups differently. He ignores the scholarship of, for example, Prof. Tanya Cooper of the University of Alabama Law School, who writes:

Unconscious racism is embedded in our civic institutions; and the foster care system is vulnerable as one such institution controlled and influenced by those in power. Those in power in turn may unwittingly discriminate against people of color, which history demonstrates.

But also, the issue of bias isn’t so, uh, black and white.  If there is a racial, religious or ethnic group that doesn’t have to grapple with biases among themselves I have yet to find it. Often, though not always, the fault-line for intra-ethnic conflict is class.

In child welfare, racial bias and class bias combine to create a toxic mix for poor families of color.

Consider the very case on which Therolf focused.  The children were taken because the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) alleged that, in Therolf’s words:

One: [The mother, Monique] Baker’s house is “filthy,” placing “the children at risk of physical harm, damage and danger.” Two: Baker is not taking her children for psychiatric treatment.
 Three:  Baker has “mental and emotional problems, including major anxiety disorder, major depression and PTSD, which renders the mother unable to provide regular care.”

But even if we assume all of these allegations are true, had a case such as this arisen in, say, Beverly Hills, DCFS never even would have noticed. It would have been solved privately by application of the following “preventive services”:

One: a maid.
Two: a nanny.
Three: a psychiatrist.

And that brings us back to Bartholet’s claim that “when poverty and neighborhood characteristics are used to analyze foster care rates, race disappears as an explanatory factor.”

Back before scholars such as Prof. Roberts marshaled all that data to show how pervasive racial bias is in child welfare, those wedded to a take-the-child-and-run approach insisted that agencies never take away children because of poverty.  Now, rather than admit to racial bias, they effectively admit to class bias.  I suppose that’s progress.

But neither bias should be tolerable in child welfare, and neither bias should be whitewashed by journalists.

* In California, neglect includes: “The failure or inability of the parent or guardian to adequately supervise or protect the child” and “The willful or negligent failure of the parent or guardian to provide the child with adequate food, clothing, shelter, or medical treatment.” 

**In her book, Nobody’s Children, Bartholet argues that children should be removed from the home in cases of “serious” abuse and neglect. In the same book (p. 61) she writes that “Estimates indicate that more than three million children a year are subjected to serious forms of abuse and neglect.” Even if she could be persuaded to leave one-third of “seriously” abused children in their own homes, that would mean taking away two million children every year.