Wednesday, January 15, 2020

UPDATED: A New York Times reporter with a conflict of interest misunderstands the impact of a child abuse tragedy


New York Times reporter Emily Palmer has been covering the trial of the man who tortured and ultimately killed six-year-old Zymere Perkins in New York City in 2016.  She wrote a story which was published a short time ago, after the man was convicted.  But she’s been editorializing about the case on Twitter as she’s been covering it.

Because of that, and because of a conflict-of-interest issue, yesterday NCCPR appealed to New York Times Metro Editor Clifford Levy to intervene.  Perhaps he did. The story is not as bad as the tweets.  But it still allows the city’s claims that its response to the tragedy improved the system to go unrebutted.

In fact, many advocates argue that the city’s response has made the system worse, and made another tragedy like the death of Zymere Perkins more likely.  That’s partly because the overwhelming majority of cases seen by the city’s Administration for Children’s Services don’t involve torture and murder – far more often they involve the confusion of poverty with neglect, as the Times itself has documented well in recent years.

The story is not just harmful to the city’s most vulnerable children. It’s also an insult to Palmer’s colleagues at the Times who have done careful, finely-nuanced reporting like this  on child welfare in recent years.  I hope this story is not a signal by Levy that he is moving Times coverage of child welfare backwards.

Here is the email NCCPR sent to Levy yesterday:

Your forthcoming story on the Zymere Perkins case trial

Dear Mr. Levy:

            This morning one of your reporters, Emily Palmer, posted this tweet about a story she will be writing concerning the trial in the death of Zymere Perkins:

This a.m. the judge is instructing the jury on the law ahead of deliberations in a child abuse and death case. The case of Zymere Perkins, a 6-year-old who died in Harlem in 2016, did much to improve the city’s child welfare system. Story coming soon!  [Emphasis added.]

As I said in a tweet thread about this, I know Ms. Palmer has a deep and abiding passion for protecting children and I admire that.  But I, and other family advocates, also believe that passion has led to some serious misjudgments, most notably in her recent package of stories as a Boston Globe Spotlight Fellow.  Those stories, of course, are not your concern.  But similar problems appear to affect her approach to the trial in the Perkins case.  There is also a matter of conflict-of-interest which I’ll get to below.

            There are advocacy groups and scholars all over New York City who believe the Perkins case made New York City child welfare worse.  We believe it undermined reforms that were making children safer, set off a foster-care panic – a sharp sudden spike in needless removals of children from their homes – and vastly increased needless surveillance of impoverished families of color.  Indeed, the response to the Perkins case worsened the very problems documented so well by the Times in its story about foster care as the new “Jane Crow.”

            My point here is not to try to convince you that we are right and those who say the Perkins case made the system better are wrong (though I would greatly appreciate the chance to try in the future at the time and place of your choosing).  At this point, I am asking simply that a story written by a reporter who’s already taken a clear editorial stand both in today’s tweet and earlier receive extra editing to ensure that well-informed viewpoints from all perspectives are well-represented. 

            For the record, in response to my tweets about this, Ms. Palmer said that she was “alluding to data-oriented improvements.”  Frankly, I’m not sure what she means by this, but I do know that there are serious questions about whether ACS has been misleading in its use of data. I discuss some of those issues here More generally, there is documentation for our concerns about the system getting worse here and here.
            But second, Ms. Palmer has editorialized about this trial before.  In another tweet, she records a video about this case in which she declares at the end that “there is one man on trial, but there’s an entire agency at fault.”

            Really? Every single caseworker? Every supervisor? Every manager?  This is exactly the kind of rhetoric that makes everyone in the system run scared and rush to take away more children needlessly, doing those children enormous harm – and overloading the system making it even less likely that the next Zymere Perkins will be found.  An editorial writer or a columnist is free to do this, of course. Although I realize there have been vast changes in the industry since I was a reporter, I thought the news side was still supposed to refrain from this, even on Twitter.

            So now we have a reporter about to write a news story concerning a trial about which she’s taken a clear editorial position.  These concerns are reinforced by the fact that, even as she covered child welfare as a Boston Globe Spotlight Fellow she also moderated a panel discussion and wrote a fact sheet for Children’s Rights, an advocacy group that is active concerning these same issues.  In fact, in the past, they’ve sued the Administration for Children’s Services and its various predecessor agencies.

            When I tweeted about this, Ms. Palmer replied:

 Re the fact-sheet: I led a panel discussion that brought together a diverse group of voices on all sides. Parent advocacy groups attended and asked excellent questions.

            In response I tweeted this:

(1/2) I saw a tape of that discussion. All sides were *not* represented. Family defenders were in the audience; they literally did not have a place at the table. But more important, you did this for an advocacy group.

[2/2] Would it be OK to moderate a panel and do a factsheet for the NRA *or* for Everytown for Gun Safety and also cover gun control?

            I would add one thing more. This link goes to a flyer about the panel Ms. Palmer moderated. Take a look at who is on the panel, and, especially who is not: Separately, on its website, Children’s Rights has this link inviting readers to Download this fact sheet on Opioids and Foster Care, produced by reporter Emily Palmer. 

            I am sure Ms. Palmer is sincere when she said this group represented “all sides.”  And that’s precisely the problem with the way she has approached child welfare reporting. Who is missing? The Bronx Defenders, Brooklyn Defender Services, Neighborhood Defender Services of Harlem, the Center for Family Representation, the writers from Rise, the magazine written by parents who’ve “caught a case” and so on.  Of course they didn’t all need to be on the panel – but surely if you want to present all sides you’d fit in one of them. 

            Thank you for your attention to this matter.

What does the Times Code of Ethics say about all this?

 As noted above, New York Times reporter Emily Palmer, who covers child welfare, moderated a panel discussion arranged and sponsored by the group that calls itself “Children’s Rights.” That group works hard to influence public policy on child welfare issues.  It also regularly sues child welfare agencies across the country.  Ms. Palmer also wrote a “Fact Sheet” for Children’s Rights, linked to the event.

Here are the relevant sections of the New York Times Code of Ethics:

The Times freely acknowledges that outside appearances can enhance the reputation of its bylines and serve the paper’s interests. Nevertheless, no staff member may appear before an outside group if the appearance could reasonably create an actual or apparent conflict of interest or undermine public trust in the paper’s impartiality. …
Staff members should be especially sensitive to the appearance of partiality when they address groups that might figure in coverage they provide, edit, package or supervise, especially if the setting might suggest a close relationship to the sponsoring group. Before accepting such an invitation, a staff member must consult with the standards editor or the deputy editorial page editor. Generally, a reporter recently returned from the Middle East might comfortably address a suburban synagogue or mosque but should not appear before a group that lobbies for Israel or the Arab states. A reporter who writes about the environment could appropriately speak to a garden club but not to conservation groups known for their efforts to influence public policy. ...
Staff members may not collaborate in ventures involving individuals or organizations that figure or are likely to figure in coverage they provide, edit, package or supervise. Among other things, this prohibition applies to collaborating in writing books, pamphlets, reports, scripts, scores or any other material and in making photographs or creating artwork of any sort.

And for those wondering about the references to Ms. Palmer’s work as a Spotlight Fellow: Watch this space on Monday.         

Friday, January 3, 2020

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending January 2, 2020

In a previous round-up, I noted the lead story in the latest issue of the Administration for Children and Families publication Children’s Bureau Express.  It’s called “It’s Time to Stop Confusing Poverty With Neglect.”  That column is excellent – but there’s more. The entire issue is devoted to this theme.  Among the other excellent stories:

I’ve written before about child welfare’s “creation myth” – how the story of Mary Ellen Wilson, a little girl abused in the 1870s, supposedly proved the need for untrammeled state intervention into families.  In fact, Mary Ellen was a foster child.  And now, Katie Albright, who runs a family support center in San Francisco, adds another key fact:  Mary Ellen was taken from her mother in the first place when her mother’s poverty was confused with neglect.

● Jeremy Kohomban and his colleagues at The Children’s Village write about how what was once one of the most regressive, hidebound “residential treatment centers” (and a media darling, especially beloved by author Anna Quindlan) has had a reckoning. They acknowledge that their previous approach was rooted in racial and class bias, and they’ve transformed into a place that emphasizes serving families in their own communities.

● And Jey Rajaraman, chief counsel for Legal Services of New Jersey, writes about “How to Help Agencies Stop Confusing Poverty With Neglect.” Lesson 1: Focus on housing.

In other news:

I have a column in Youth Today about who’s trying to push to the front of the line to exploit the Family First Act to “leverage” more money for themselves. Hint: It’s not families.

● In Canada, where the child welfare system is depressingly similar to ours, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. has a story about a social worker who made it her mission to defend families whose children were taken needlessly – and what happened to her. (It’s what you think.)

● And there is sad news from Connecticut, where a federal court ruling may effectively give the state free reign to tear children from parents whose alleged mental illness is said to indicate they may abuse or neglect their children in the future.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

NCCPR in Youth Today on who’s first on line to scarf up scarce $ thanks to the Family First Act. Hint: It’s not families

Remember the Family First Act? That’s the vastly overhyped federal legislation touted as a revolutionary change in how child welfare is financed. Supposedly, under Family First, lots of money that used to be reserved only for foster care will, at last, go to better alternatives. That was never going to happen. Very little additional money actually will go to those better alternatives.

And now it looks like the very first to benefit from Family First may not be families at all. It may be “providers” of the worst form of “care” in a state that is always a candidate for foster care capital of America. Yes, the first beneficiaries of Family First may be residential treatment centers (RTCs) in Wyoming, a state that regularly tears apart families at a rate nearly triple the national average, even when rates of family poverty are factored in.

Monday, December 23, 2019

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending December 23, 2019

This edition is devoted entirely to following-up the outstanding Kansas City Star series on the harm of foster care.

● The Star has a round-up of reaction from public officials and others. Many public officials tried to deflect from the heart of the problem by focusing on one noncontroversial solution. After all, no one is against spending more to provide better educational opportunities to foster children. But it’s hard to take advantage of those opportunities if you don’t have a real home.  Much more promising is an effort by Iowa’s public defender, Jeff Wright, to expand high-quality defense for families, so children don’t have to endure needless foster care in the first place.

● NCCPR has an op-ed column in the Star about the one person who understands exactly how to fix the problems the newspaper exposed: A Kansas City police officer.

● And in The Appeal, Vaidya Gullapalli, senior legal counsel at The Justice Collaborative, links the Star findings to other stories showing the racial and class bias in the system.  

Sunday, December 22, 2019

NCCPR in the Kansas City Star on foster care tragedy

With its series “Throwaway Kids,” The Kansas City Star has raised the bar for journalism about child welfare all over America. The very fact that reporters Laura Bauer and Judy L. Thomas had to begin their search for answers in America’s prisons speaks volumes about how we destroy children in the name of “saving” them.

Fortunately, the person who knows best how to fix it is right in Kansas City. He is Sgt. A.J. Henry of the Kansas City Police Department.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

NCCPR news and commentary round-up, week ending December 17, 2019

● Of course the most important news was the outstanding series, “Throwaway Kids” from the Kansas City Star.  I have a blog post on it, with links to the stories.  And one of the reporters on the series, Laura Bauer, was interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition.

● Echoing the Star’s findings, the nation’s top child welfare official, Jerry Milner, spoke of the confusion of poverty with neglect at a conference in Mississippi. The Jackson, (Miss.) Free Press has a report.

● The New York Daily News has an excellent op-ed column from Michele Cortese and Tehra Coles of the Center for Family Representation. It explains why New York City needs to build on the success on its model of family representation by making lawyers available to families as soon as they are under investigation by the city’s Administration for Children’s Services.

● NBC News and the Houston Chronicle have another strong follow-up to their series on the devastation done to families when “child abuse pediatricians” get it wrong. One doctor has a solution that’s simple, sensible and would only be resisted in a field as arrogant as child welfare. They resist even though, as this doctor notes, “When we get this one wrong, you take a kid away from a loving family, and a caretaker goes to jail.”

● The American Bar Association publication Child Law Practice Today has a guide to help practitioners deal with Race and Poverty Bias in the Child Welfare System.

Monday, December 16, 2019

The journalism of child welfare at its best

Photo by Nightryder84

When reporters for the Kansas City Star wanted to know what happens to former foster children, they began in the most logical place: Jails.

He still has the last name of a woman who adopted him in grade school — then gave him back.
From the time he was 3 until he turned 14, Dominic Williamson was bounced to 80 different foster homes. When he turned 18, he found himself alone and homeless, and resorting to a life of crime.
Now, at 20, he has a home more permanent than any he’s ever known.
The Hutchinson Correctional Facility in Kansas.

Those words begin an extraordinary six-part series published Sunday by the Kansas City Star.

We’ve all heard about the foster-care-to-prison pipeline.  Just two months ago, Prof. Vivek Sankaran wrote a powerful column about a former client of his.  He was a bright, engaging little boy when his aunt first asked child protective services for some help. Instead, CPS threw him into foster care, moved him from home to home, group home to group home, until he had no ties to anyone who loved him.  You can probably guess where he is now.

But Star reporters Laura Bauer and Judy L. Thomas wanted to know more.  How often does foster care lead to prison?  What about other outcomes?  How did these youth get funneled into the foster-care to prison pipeline in the first place?  And, most important, how can we do better?

6,000 inmates respond

So they devised a questionnaire and asked state prison authorities to cooperate.  Twelve states took part; 6,000 inmates filled out questionnaires.  That formed the basis for a series that, though published by a regional newspaper, is national in its scope and, I hope, its impact.

Of course not every former foster child winds up in prison; though the percentage who do some prison time is alarming. And, as one advocate told the Star: “We are sending more foster kids to prison than college.” (In fact, it’s not even close.)
The link to one part of the series aptly sums up a crucial finding: Former foster kids blame a system they say took them from their homes for being poor

Much of the story focuses on MichelleVoorhees:

“Just because their family doesn’t have the means to take care of them doesn’t mean that you should just sever that bond,” said Voorhees, 28, who had two stints in foster care. “So many of these problems truly do stem from poverty.”
“There’s all this money to pay to foster homes and all this money for adoptions and what-not,” she said. “I don’t understand how there is so much funding to rip us away, but no funding to keep us there.”
Bauer and Thomas write that Voorhees

often thinks of how life could have been different if she were able to stay with her mother for all of her childhood. To know that she was always safe and loved.
“Had my mom just had a little bit of help, had she had enough money to buy her own vehicle, had she had enough money to relocate herself from an abusive situation, had she not had to have been dependent on men in the first place for any kind of financial stability, I don’t believe that she would have made some of the decisions that she made,” Voorhees says. “I don’t believe that she would have struggled as a mother, because my mom is a good mom.”

Read the story to see how Voorhees’ life actually turned out, thanks to the best efforts of the child welfare system to “save” her from her mother.

And you can see her story in this video:

“The animus against poor families…”

And, of course it isn’t just Voorhees.  From the story:

Many prison inmates who completed The Star’s survey said they believed they were removed from their homes because of poverty. They said their families would have been stronger with a little support. …
One inmate in the Upper Midwest said he went into foster care after being molested by a babysitter when he was 10.  “They did not have to take me out of my home,” he wrote on the survey. “We were poor and couldn’t afford a lawyer.”
An inmate from Hawaii said when she was moved into foster care, she felt like she lost her identity. “I felt abandoned not just by my parents but by the same system that was created to protect,” she wrote. “The whole foster care system needs to be broken down, reconstructed on the principle of Children first Family is Everything.”

Plenty of experts backed up the youths’ perceptions:

“This country has a hesitation for providing anything that looks like welfare to families,” said Clark Peters, a professor of social work at the University of Missouri. “So it is really the animus against poor families that drives this. …”

Amazingly, even the group that calls itself “Children’s Rights” (CR) agreed.  The story quotes the group’s Litigation Director:

“Often, vulnerable poor families don’t have the money or the power to push back against government intervention,” said Ira Lustbader, an attorney who has spent the past two decades representing children nationwide in class action lawsuits. “Families are ripped apart for poverty and not abuse.
“There are deep biases at play in government intervention. And judgments made that are based on perceptions of poverty and race play out horrifically for too many families.”

The tragedy, however, is that CR does have the money and the power to push back against needless removal, but for decades it has failed to use that power. In fact, its lawsuit settlements sometimes have made the problem worse.  So now the question is: Will CR back up the words with a change in its approach to litigation?  Kansas would be a good place to start.

Making a crucial connection

Of course not every example in the Star series involved wrongful removal.  The series also describes cases in which the initial removal was absolutely essential, yet the system still failed.  But the Star stories make a vital connection between these failures that most other stories miss:

Kids who could have stayed in their homes take up beds in good foster homes that are needed for severely abused and neglected children whose safety is in jeopardy. Because of that, kids from Oregon to Florida and states in between are forced to sleep in child welfare offices or homeless shelters.

As it happens, Oregon and Florida have been two of the states where the failure to make this connection has had the most severe consequences. 

Just last week, Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) produced an excellent, thoroughly reported, searing expose about the harm done to children shipped by the Oregon child welfare agency all over the country to facilities run by a for-profit McTreatment chain.  But the story never mentions the key reason it keeps happening: For decades Oregon has torn apart families at rates well above the national average. And for decades, Oregon media have largely, though not entirely, ignored that fact. (OPB has actually done better than most on this point; but still it rarely gets a mention.) 

In Florida, the Miami Herald itself not only failed to make the connection, it set off a foster-care panic that reversed reforms and made the entire system worse.

The Herald’s approach further opens the spigot on the foster-care-to-prison pipeline.  The approach by most journalists in Oregon does nothing to close the spigot.  The Kansas City Star breaks new ground with a systematic look at how the youth come out at the other end.

Getting the most from the stories

            After three or four stories nonsubscribers to the star are likely to hit a paywall.  But you can get a one-month subscription for $1.99 or a day pass for only 99 cents. I know the hassle of signing up is more of an issue than the cost, but it’s well worth it.

            If you must stop at only three stories I recommend (of course) the one noted above, which documents unnecessary removal and the confusion of poverty with neglect, the first part of the series, which presents an excellent overview, and the one called “A daughter, a foster care child, an inmate: Crystal Smith’s letter to her mom.”