Sunday, May 19, 2019

News and commentary round-up, week ending May 18, 2019

● The good news: In Montana, the state that tears apart families at the highest rate in the nation, the state Supreme Court finally found a case in which the child welfare agency’s rush to terminate parental rights was so egregious they felt compelled to overturn it. The bad news: Out of 250 appeals since 2012, this has happened no more than five times. Simply by reciting the facts of the case the story offers useful insight into the appalling mentality that permeates child welfare in Montana.

● In Arizona, the judge presiding over the case in which police broke down a family’s door and took the children at gunpoint has returned the children to their parents – but, the Arizona Republic reports, legal custody remains with the state, so they’ll still have to jump through all sorts of pointless hoops.

● I have a blog post about how the advocates-in-scholars’-clothing at Chapin Hall are fanning the flames of foster-care panic in Illinois.  And the Family Justice Resource Center has a letter to the Chicago Tribune warning of another group trying to exploit recent tragedies in that state: so-called child abuse pediatricians.

A former foster youth on the HBO documentary “Foster”: “In regard to dignity for foster youth, this film is a travesty.”  (We agree.)

●Two more examples of the horrors of being a foster child in Oregon:

--After a scandal involving the placement of Oregon foster children in out-of-state institutions, the state child welfare agency promised to visit the places to be sure that Oregon children were not ill-treated.  So off they went to the Red Rock Canyon School in St. George, Utah.  They came back with a glowing report that made the place sound like the best summer camp you could imagine.

Just one problem: As Oregon Public Broadcasting reports, one day later, Utah issued its own report.  They found such severe problems that they put the institution’s license on “conditional” status.  Actually, make that two problems: The Oregon DHS representatives visited the place, and wrote their gushy report “shortly after a brawl erupted on campus where a SWAT team responded and reportedly aimed guns at the foster youth.”

Why did the Oregon visitors see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil and write no evil in their report? Because Oregon tears apart families at a rate far above the national average, creating an artificial “shortage” of in-state foster homes.  So they ship kids all over the country and absolutely do not want to know what really happens to them.

--This also explains the other horror to come to light in Oregon last week: If the allegations in the lawsuit described in this story are correct, Oregon all but guaranteed that the foster children on whose behalf the suit was brought would be abused in foster care.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Foster-care panic in Illinois: Chapin Hall throws gasoline on the fire

This is a follow-up to an earlier post about foster-care panic in Illinois which includes links and citations for all data and studies.

Back when he ran – and dramatically improved – the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, Jess McDonald had a graph he called his “EKG chart” – because that’s what it looked like.

The chart showed the spikes in the number of children taken from their parents during any week in which a child abuse fatality was on the front page of the Chicago Tribune or the Chicago Sun- Times.

Right now, odds are the EKG would be off the charts.  Illinois almost certainly is experiencing its worst foster-care panic since 1993 – when the scapegoating of family preservation after the death of Joseph Wallace caused removals to skyrocket, plunged an already bad system into chaos, and was followed by an increase in child abuse deaths. 

The problem isn’t that the deaths are on the front page – that’s exactly where they belong. The problem is that politicians are rushing to learn the wrong lessons; and a bunch of people with a depressing record for dressing up their advocacy as “scholarship” are pouring gasoline on the fire.

The most recent horror stories, including the death of A.J. Freund, were caused by overloaded caseworkers, budget cuts and an ill-conceived privatization of services for families.  But you’re much more likely to score political points – and less likely to have to spend state money - if you rush to scapegoat family preservation.

And so, Gov. J.B. Pritzker does what politicians so often do in these situations: He embraces the Big Lie of American child welfare, and confuses child removal with child safety.  While he didn’t quite utter the common mantra “if in doubt, yank ‘em out” he came depressingly close, declaring: “We will make sure the message is clear: If the child is unsafe, we don’t want there to be any hesitation about removing a child.”

But it is far better for children when you remove the risk instead of the child – and, since most cases are nothing like the horror stories, in most cases, it is possible to do just that.

The problem with Pritzker’s approach is that it increases the danger to children – and I don’t just mean the enormous emotional trauma of needless removal. Pritzker’s approach also means increasing the already high risk of abuse in foster care itself, and increasing the overload for caseworkers, making it even less likely that they will find the next A.J. Freund.  These are all lessons that were learned after the Wallace tragedy – but now, apparently, have been forgotten.

Perhaps one should expect no better from politicians. But we should expect better from those who proclaim themselves to be scholars.  But Pritzker actually was responding to a quick-and-dirty “review” from advocates who have a long, ugly track record of presenting their anti-family advocacy as "scholarship" – Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.

A not-so-systemic review

Chapin Hall was hired by the governor to do a “Systemic review of Critical Incidents” involving families that had received what Illinois calls “Intact Family Services.”  They spent all of six weeks on the task.

But there was nothing systemic about it. 

Instead, Chapin Hall simply reviewed existing reports on horror story cases conducted by the DCFS Inspector General’s office, reviewed a grand total of three fatality cases and some other documents and forms, and interviewed all of 14 “stakeholders.”

Since the sample was both tiny and non-random, it is impossible to draw sweeping conclusions – but Chapin Hall does so anyway.  You may be sure that had any family preservation advocate cited three carefully-chosen success stories to “prove” the fact that family preservation typically is better for children than foster care Chapin Hall would have thrown a fit.

But since we respect scholarship, we don’t do this. Instead, we cite massive peer-reviewed studies, including two specific to Illinois.

So, if you were going to judge the safety and appropriateness of various interventions, which research do you think is likely to be more valid? A handful of horror stories, selected precisely because they are horror stories, or a carefully matched experimental design involving more than 15,000 cases?

But then, Chapin Hall clearly had drawn its conclusions before even starting the “review.”  They rushed out a press release highlighting the low rate of child removal in Illinois – clearly signaling that was what they would conclude was a key problem.  And sure enough, that was the very first sentence in their review.

In fact, independent court-appointed monitors, who examine the system as part of a longstanding consent decree, have found again and again that as Illinois reduced its rate of removal child safety improved.  (Indeed, even the Chapin Hall review mentions, in a single sentence, a statistic that calls its entire thesis into question: Even now, with all the budget cuts and other recent mistakes, the rate of child abuse deaths in Illinois is below the national average.  That doesn’t prove that a low rate of removal reduces child abuse deaths, but it doesn’t exactly support a hypothesis that a low rate of removal puts children in danger.)

And, as we noted previously, the low rate-of-removal statistic is misleading. It’s skewed by Cook County. In the rest of the state, the rate of removal is much higher.

That’s not the only example of statistics abuse in the review.  In the recommendations section, the review implies that if there are enough reports alleging abuse that alone should be enough to take away the child.  Why? Because “research suggests that young children with previous allegations of physical abuse die at a rate 70% higher than children with allegations of neglect.”

A basic fact about child abuse fatalities

What this neglects to mention is a basic fact for which we all should be grateful: Though each child abuse death is among the worst imaginable tragedies, they are extremely rare tragedies. 

There are more than 73 million Americans under age 18.  Even if we double the official estimate, that would mean that 3,440 die each year of child abuse.  Even if we narrow this down and look only at the number of children who, in some way, become known to child protective services agencies, and fatalities among these children we’re still talking about a very few needles in a gigantic haystack – as Illustrated here nationally and for Illinois. 

That’s based on national figures.  Here’s the Illinois version:

So this “research” tells us only that the chances of any parent killing a child are infinitesimal – and the chances of a parent who was the subject of previous allegations killing a child are ever-so-slightly less infinitesimal.  Yet based on this, Chapin Hall seems to want a massive increase in the removal of children from their homes, solely based on previous allegations, regardless of whether those allegations had any validity.

This was, in fact, the same mentality behind DCFS’ failed experiment in using “predictive analytics – a dangerous fad in child welfare that amounts to what Prof. Virginia Eubanks, author of Automating Inequality calls “poverty profiling.” It appears they factored in things like: “people with multiple reports might be more likely to kill their children” without factoring in the fact that almost no parent ever kills her or his child.

caseworkers were alarmed and overwhelmed by alerts as thousands of children were rated as needing urgent protection. More than 4,100 Illinois children were assigned a 90 percent or greater probability of death or injury, according to internal DCFS child-tracking data released to the Tribune under state public records laws.  And 369 youngsters, all under age 9, got a 100 percent chance of death or serious injury in the next two years, the Tribune found.
At the same time, high-profile child deaths kept cropping up with little warning from the predictive analytics software, DCFS officials told the Tribune.

And yet, one of Chapin Hall’s recommendations is that DCFS “revisit the use of predictive models …”  Because in child welfare nothing succeeds like failure.

On top of everything else there is, at a minimum, an appearance of conflict of interest in turning to Chapin Hall.  The whole place is run by a former DCFS director, Bryan Samuels.

It’s not as if there is some shortage of genuinely objective scholars out there.  Some of them, from the University of Illinois School of Social Work Children and Family Resource Center, are already on the job: They’re the ones who monitor the consent decree – and who have found that when Illinois reduced its rate of removal child safety improved.

And there are plenty of groups outside Illinois.

But as long as Illinois politicians’ knee jerk response is to ask Chapin Hall for answers, the answer will always boil down to take the child and run.  And it will always be wrong.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

NCCPR in Youth Today on federal legislation that would take the last brake off the foster care steamroller

...The bill would more than double the amount of money the federal government forks over to states for foster care reimbursement each year. Even worse, this bill would remove the only small brake from what is less a runaway train than a lumbering foster care steamroller that crushes better alternatives for children....

Read the full column in Youth Today

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

News and commentary round-up, week ending May 13, 2019

●Last week I posted a link to an op-ed column by a family defender in New York City about the kind of family that doesn’t have to worry about having child protective services in its life.  This week: Another family defender writes in the New York Daily News about the kind of family that does.

●From Honolulu Civil Beat: An excellent story about a family faced with two kinds of trauma. First, the children were needlessly taken because the mother was herself a victim of domestic violence.  And now, the mother may be denied the career she’s wanted all her life because she can’t get off the state’s central registry of alleged child abusers – a registry she never should have been on in the first place.

●I have a column in Youth Today about how the foster care-industrial complex is trying to get legislation through Congress that would more than double federal foster care spending – and remove the last federal fiscal brake on needless foster care.

●Vivek Sankaran has a column about how his own experiences illustrate what’s revealed by a new study: High-quality family defense, using the model pioneered in New York City, dramatically curbs needless foster care, with no compromise of child safety.  And this story discusses East Bay Family Defenders, which is bringing the New York model of family defense to Alameda County, California.

●In another column Sankaran talks about foster youth who endured years of abuse in foster care, finding strength in their relationship with each other – and their mother.

I have a blog post about why Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services is the Kellyanne Conway of child welfare agencies. They both have a fondness for “alternative facts.”  (And, of course, they’re both deeply involved with the needless separation of families.)

Youth Today has a story about a court decision that stops the New York City Administration for Children’s Services from sending out the police to arrest foster youth who run away.

● And The New York Times has an op-ed that says not one word about foster care or the child welfare system – and yet explains exactly how to fix it.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Philadelphia DHS Pyramid of Bulls**t

Fortunately, it’s no match for the Bar Graph of Reality:

For full details on time periods, methodology and sources
 see the NCCPR Big City Rate-of-Removal Index
The Philadelphia Department of Human Services (DHS) is the Kellyanne Conway of child welfare. 

Under the leadership of Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa, the agency has developed a fondness for  “alternative facts” – desperately spinning data (and recent history) in the hope that no one will notice the simple truth: Year after year after year, Philadelphia tears apart families at either the highest or the second highest rate among America’s biggest cities, even when rates of family poverty are factored in.  (Come to think of it, justifying the needless removal of children is something else Conway and Philadelphia DHS have in common.)

Yes, the most recent data show that, due to a slight decrease in removals in Philadelphia, and a big increase in Phoenix, Philadelphia is again in second place among the ten largest cities. Narrowed down to the five largest, Philadelphia is still #1. And what is consistent year after year is that these two metropolitan areas – Phoenix and Philadelphia -- consistently tear apart families at rates far above all the others.

Recently, I discovered that DHS had outdone itself, when I found something toward the end of the department’s most recent Quarterly Indicators Report.  It wasn’t entirely a surprise. Ever since Philadelphia journalists caught on to the city’s extreme outlier status, DHS has been in full alternative facts mode.  As I explained in a blog post in February:

Here’s what DHS is claiming, according to a tweet from the agency: “Last year of 19,325 families reported, 3.8% had children removed due to safety.”  In a tweet of her own, Figueroa claimed that “Philadelphia’s removal rate is inline with the National average and other big cities.”

What’s new is the visual.  Call it, the DHS Pyramid of Bullshit.  It looks like one of those classic “food pyramids” but it’s designed to reinforce the false impression left by the tweets. Here’s why the operative word is bullshit:

The basic number DHS doesn’t want you to know

For starters, nowhere in the pyramid does DHS ever tell us the actual number of times children are taken from their parents in Philadelphia each year.  So here’s the actual number for federal fiscal year 2018:


In fact, I have not been able to find the number of entries into foster care anywhere on the DHS website.  The figure is easy to find for every other community in the top ten – even for Phoenix.

How do we know the 2,718 figure is correct? Because every state and locality has to report entries into foster care to the federal government. And, though it takes awhile, the federal government makes these totals public.  That’s how Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children pulls together data for every county in Pennsylvania.  You’ll find the figure for Philadelphia in this report at the bottom of page 2.

So why won’t DHS even provide this one basic number?  Why won’t the agency tell the press and the public something as basic as “How many times a year are children taken from their parents in Philadelphia?” 

The answer, of course, is that the real number is so embarrassing – it shows how vastly out-of-line Philadelphia is with every other big city except Phoenix.

So instead, the Pyramid of Bullshit includes only the claim that children were removed from 739 families in City Fiscal Year 2018.  But even that makes no sense, since that would mean taking an average of nearly four children per family.  So some data seem to be missing.

Compared to what?

The other problem concerns what measure is used to compare the number of children removed from their homes.  The logical choice is to compare it to something objective.  So one should either compare entries to the number of children or the number of impoverished children in each community. 

With its fondness for "alternative facts," 
and its willingness to justify needlessly 
separating families, Philadelphia DHS is the
Kellyanne Conway of child welfare agencies
(Photo by Gage Skidmore)
When you actually do that, you get the Bar Graph of Reality that appears at the top of this post comparing entries into care to the number of impoverished children in each of the five largest cities.  You’ll find another Bar Graph of Reality for all ten big cities at the end of this post.  They show that Philadelphia is nowhere near “inline” with either the national average or other big cities – except Phoenix.

We think factoring in poverty is the fairer method, but in our NCCPR Big City Rate-of-Removal Index, we do both.  (For the record, if you don’t factor in poverty, Philadelphia is even worse, #1 in child removal instead of #2.) The Index also provides links to sources for all data.

But a key part of the DHS Kellyanne Conway act is to avoid using anything truly objective for comparison. So instead she offers the number of families reported as alleged child abusers and the number of families investigated.

But that figure is itself easily manipulated.  If, as Cynthia Figueroa reportedly does, you urge people to just use their “intuition” and report anything and everything and if, as Cynthia Figueroa seems to believe, every sports injury might be abuse and therefore should be reported, and if, every few years, as it is prone to do, the Pennsylvania Legislature passes a spate of new laws demanding an that ever more people report their intuition, then the number of reports and investigations will artificially increase.

In contrast, DHS can’t manipulate the number of children living in Philadelphia or the number living in poverty (though if DHS really wanted to curb child abuse and neglect, reducing the latter number would be a great way to start.)  So the logical comparison is the number of times children are thrown into foster care compared to the number of children living in poverty.

That’s reality.  The only way to change that reality is for Philadelphia DHS to stop needlessly harming so many children by consigning them to the chaos of foster care. 

And Philadelphia DHS could do it, too. If only what passes for leadership there would devote as much creativity to alleviating poverty and curbing needless removal as it did to crafting its Pyramid of Bullshit.

For more details about methodology see this earlier post.

For full details on time periods, methodology and sources see the
NCCPR Big City Rate-of-Removal Index

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

News and commentary round-up, week ending May 7, 2019

● There’s still another major study documenting the extent to which children are needlessly in foster care – and this one also documents the success of one solution: high-quality legal defense for families.  There’s a story in the Chronicle of Social Change. Here’s the press release from New York University School of Law. And I have a post about it on this blog.

● One of the lawyers who provides this kind of high-quality family defense has an excellent essay in Paste about a family in which the mother accidentally dropped her five-year-old son. He suffered a fractured skull.  But this family didn’t need a lawyer.  Can you guess why?

● The Arizona Republic has a story about the hypocritical way child protective services agencies invoke concerns about children’s privacy – because it’s the agency’s privacy they’re really defending.

● One child welfare agency, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services countenanced a massive invasion of children’s privacy – and that was only one of the problems with the HBO documentary Foster.  I have a blog post about it.

● Daniel Heimpel, publisher of the Chronicle of Social Change has a column criticizing Naomi Schaefer Riley for using “cherry-picked statistics on child maltreatment deaths – a horrific but incredibly rare occurrence – to insinuate that ramping up domestic family separations has a corollary in reduced child maltreatment deaths.”  (I have more about Riley here.)

● The Chronicle also has a column from Nora McCarthy, director of Rise, about Rise’s Handbook for improving frontline practice with parents (There’s a link to the full handbook.)

● And, 26 years after I wrote a cover story for the alternative weekly in Chicago about the foster-care panic caused by certain media and politicians, I have an update.  (The media are doing better; the politicians, not so much.)

The shame of HBO’s “Foster”

The foster parent is a saint!  The caseworkers are heroes!  The birth parents are scum! (Unless they repent in which case they are merely sick.)  And none of that is even the worst thing about this documentary.

This is a stock photo. This child is not the subject of a documentary
about foster care. If he were, no one would show his face.
Or would they?
In its promotional material for the “documentary” Foster, (and no, I’m not going to link to it) HBO declares that it “upend[s] some of the most enduring myths about foster care, going beyond the stereotypes.”

On the contrary. Foster enshrines enduring myths and stereotypes. Foster is the system the way the system wants to be seen – noble foster parents and heroic caseworkers rescuing innocent children from parents who are usually the scum of the earth but occasionally – if they repent – merely sick.  And all that isn’t even the worst part.

Foster mimics one of the biggest failures of the system itself.  Foster care, the system, is built to help the helpers – to make the helpers feel good, even at the expense of the children.  Foster, the documentary, does exactly the same thing. That’s why it’s going to be enormously popular among middle class professionals in the system, and that’s why none of them is likely to notice the documentary’s single greatest flaw; a failure not of filmmaking but of ethics.

Wrong from the start

 Foster gets it wrong literally from the opening moments.  It begins with the claim that one in eight American children will suffer a “confirmed” case of abuse or neglect by age 18.  That’s not true.

“Confirmed” is a made-up term, used by those wedded to a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare, to mischaracterize cases. The actual terms “indicated” or “substantiated” can mean only that a caseworker guessed that it is slightly more likely than not that some kind of abuse or neglect occurred.  And, at no point does Foster even hint that there is a vast difference between the horrors described by some of the children in the “documentary” and typical cases; cases that often involve the confusion of family poverty with “neglect.”

It’s all downhill from there.

 A real-life “Aunt Ti.”

First we meet the foster mother who is essentially the star of the program. She deserves to be. There is no reason to doubt the portrayal of this foster parent as someone who has been, sometimes literally, a lifesaver for the children in her care.

She is a woman possessed of such boundless patience, genuine love, and enthusiasm that by the end of the program you’ll probably wish your parents had been accused of child abuse just so you could have the chance to go live with her.  The only other foster parent who comes close is “Aunt Ti” – and she exists only in a Twilight Zone episode written by the creator of The Waltons.

But such foster parents are no more typical than the ones on the other extreme – the ones who abuse the children entrusted to their care.

But this isn’t the worst of it.

Equally unrepresentative are the current and former foster children - at least in terms of what brought them into foster care. We hear only from foster children whose parents range from inexcusably neglectful to unspeakably cruel, often raining down physical and verbal abuse.  Again, there is no reason to doubt their accounts. But the parents they describe are not typical of the parents who lose children to the system.

Put Foster’s atypical portrayals of birth parents and foster parents together and viewers are left wondering why we don’t rush in and “rescue” far more children from horrible parents, since what could be better for them than a real-life Aunt Ti?

But this isn’t the worst of it either.

The only good parent is a redeemed parent

But wait, I can hear the producers saying: What about the parents we did show? – we didn’t portray them as evil.

True, but in the world of Foster, if birth parents aren’t evil they have to be sick! Sick! Sick!  And they must be guided by noble caseworkers into realizing the error of their ways and repenting!  Then and only then do they “deserve” to have their children back. 

Indeed, a guidebook for “watch parties” explicitly calls on discussion leaders to push a “public   There is nothing in Foster to indicate that what’s really needed is a social justice approach – something that’s been shown effective in study after study.
health” approach to child welfare.
But in Foster the only good parent is a parent who has been properly cured – and redeemed.  So this is what we see:

A mother uses drugs while pregnant. The infant tests positive for cocaine.  Mom lies about it – to avoid having the child taken away. Dad has no idea Mom was doing drugs.  The family is reunited but only after scene after scene in which Mom confesses to how horrible she’s been, and both parents express undying gratitude to the caseworkers and thank them profusely.  (They’re going to love screening this at social work schools!)

In fact, there probably is no reason this infant couldn’t have been left with this loving couple in which the mother made a mistake.  It’s likely that all they needed was concrete help and, possibly, drug treatment for the mother.  Or the infant could have been placed in the sole custody of the father – which is what happened eventually, but only after the child was placed in foster care and the parents bowed and scraped enough to persuade the system they were worthy.

Foster, however, offers no hint that there was any alternative to removal. The explanation from the caseworker is taken at face value. And only inadvertently do we see how the system actually put stress on the family that may have driven the parents apart.

At one point an “investigator” visiting the father suspects that the infant may have had a seizure.  And that, in turn, might be because of Mom’s drug use.  It is only much later in the documentary that those viewers still around learn that there is no medical evidence that there was a seizure (though it’s still assumed to have happened) and no evidence that cocaine use caused the alleged seizure – if there was a seizure.

But by then Dad has become furious at Mom.  At a counseling session (of course), with the mother in the room, he says: “I was pissed off that she did something and it’s going to reflect on my daughter.  Why the hell did you choose to use that fu----g drug!”  To which the counselor replies “It’s great you were able to get that off your chest … [but] you have to forgive her.”

At the end of the program, it’s revealed that the couple has separated.

Reinforcing stereotypes about “drug babies.”

This family isn’t the only one harmed in ways the producers can’t seem to see.

As The New York Times explains, one of the most important lessons of the “crack baby” scare of the 1980s is that not only were the claims about the effects of prenatal substance abuse grossly overblown, often it was the very stigma inflicted on the children by the system that caused the harm.

In Foster we meet an 18-year-old who is one of the few foster youth to make it into college, where she is struggling.  She beat enormous odds, both because she was one of those treated horribly by her own mother, and because she was moved to so many homes she can’t even remember them all. Anyone who can come so far in spite of so much is a lot of things, such as resilient, determined and courageous.  She sure isn’t “dumb.”

But she thinks she is.  And she thinks she knows why.  Twice she says it’s because “I was a drug baby.”

Apparently, no one ever told her otherwise.  And now, a documentary will reinforce that belief – for her, and for viewers.

But even this isn’t the worst thing about Foster. 

A massive invasion of privacy

The worst is its massive invasion of children’s privacy.

HBO brags about how the producers of Foster got “unprecedented access.”  That is true. And it’s a travesty.

The most intimate details of a 16-year-old’s life – and his crimes (he’s already part of the juvenile justice system) -- are discussed on camera in meetings and at televised court hearings.  What is apparently his real first name – an unusual name – is used throughout and he is seen on camera.

Much younger children also are seen, being interviewed and interacting with their foster mother.  An autistic eight-year-old is seen breaking down and having a tantrum for fear of getting onto a school bus.  Now, all of these moments will live on forever.

All because a child protective services agency – the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) - and a bunch of other players in the system, traded these children’s privacy for some good p.r.

I’m sure it was all legal.  I’m sure all the proper forms and releases were signed.  But here’s the problem: no one – no one – who has the legal authority to sign away the privacy of foster children by putting their faces on camera and using their real first names has the moral right to do it. 

That’s because the moral right to decide whether the benefits of such exposure outweigh the risks rests only with those who love the children whose privacy is at risk.  Agencies do not love children.  (It’s the same issue that arises when child welfare agencies allow foster children to be used for clinical drug trials. Yes, that does happen.)

These children’s own parents can’t give truly informed consent for the simple reason that they’re inherently under duress.  They may fear that if they don’t sign the form they might never see the children again.

If the children of the foster mother actually were adopted before they were put on camera, then their adoptive mother had the right to make the decision.  But except for one of the children, whose status is seen changing to guardianship (at an on camera court hearing) they are all portrayed as foster children.  It that is accurate than the foster mother, however well intentioned, lacked the moral right to sign those forms.

Mind-boggling hypocrisy

Even more mind-boggling is the hypocrisy.  NCCPR favors open court hearings in child welfare cases.  But whenever there is an attempt to open court hearings in a new state or locality, it’s almost always the child welfare agency, or assorted other parts of the system, that scream and yell about how this should not be done because those sleazy journalists can’t be trusted to keep children’s identities a secret. 

But journalists have an outstanding record of voluntarily withholding children’s names and other identifying information.  That’s one reason why at least 40 percent of foster children now live in communities where court hearings are open, in many cases they’ve been open for decades with no problems.

Los Angeles County, however, is not one of them.  In fact, when it was tried, an appellate court stopped it. One of the groups that objected said that opening the hearings “put the needs and interests of the public and the media ahead of the victims of child abuse and neglect.”

Yet in Foster, that same group, and others who had opposed open courts in Los Angeles, are enthusiastic participants.  Various professionals are seen – sometimes along with their young clients – on camera, in meetings discussing the most intimate aspects of the lives of children we have gotten to know by face and first name, in therapy sessions, and in court hearings that have not only been opened, but opened to cameras.

The benefits of leaving L.A.

It’s hard to blame the producers for all this. They, too, almost certainly had the best of intentions. But they made one crucial mistake: They never left Los Angeles.  They tapped into the master narrative that has dominated Los Angeles child welfare, and coverage of Los Angeles child welfare, for decades.  Those thanked in the closing credits include some of the very people and groups responsible for getting child welfare wrong all the way back to the McMartin Preschool hysteria. 

And there’s no effective counter-narrative in Los Angeles – in particular no well-organized, passionate community of family defense attorneys.

Had the producers decided to do their documentary about foster care in New York City, odds are they would have told a very different, and much more complete, story.