Their anguish over the death of another child “known to the system” is genuine. I think they’ll also be open to some new ideas.
A little over a week ago, two columnists for the Tampa Bay Times, Sue Carlton and John Romano, wrote about still another death of a child “known to the system” in Florida. Often, when that happens, I reach out to the journalists in a letter. This time, I’m sharing that letter with everyone.
Dear Ms. Carlton and Mr. Romano:
I am writing to you because you’ve both written columns about the tragic death of Jordan Belliveau, another child “known to the system” in Florida – apparently on the same day. More particularly, I am writing because your columns were not the usual quick-and-dirty “Boy do I hate child abuse!” rants – the kind of column that is filled with scapegoating; the kind that’s really just a cheap and easy way to meet a deadline. On the contrary, the anguish in your columns is real and you both seem seriously interested in answers.
Indeed, I first got in touch with you, Ms. Carlton, after you wrote a brave, counterintuitive column on some of these very issues. That was in 2010, a time when Florida child welfare finally was starting to improve. As you may recall, when I wrote to you then, I predicted a backlash against reform. Sadly, that’s exactly what happened. I did not predict that it would be led by the Miami Herald – and the editorial board at the Tampa Bay Times. But that’s also exactly what happened. So the need for bold, counterintuitive thinking is even greater now.
I am using the open letter approach because you’re certainly not alone in agonizing over how to fix child welfare in Florida. And I am hoping that your interest in answers includes a willingness to look past the usual failed solutions – just as you did, Ms. Carlton, in 2010. Because those “solutions,” and the false premises that underlie them, are a large part of what has gotten Florida, and much of the country, into this mess in the first place.
Among those false premises is one that both of you mention in your columns. That’s understandable, since it is probably the most common misconception in all of child welfare: The idea that family preservation and child safety are inherently at odds – competing interests that somehow have to be “balanced.” The implication, of course, is that if you leave a child in or return a child to a home where abuse or neglect has been alleged, that’s inherently risky. Keep the child in foster care and it may ruin his psyche, but at least he’s physically safe.
That is not true.
What I will argue in this long letter is that in the overwhelming majority of cases family preservation isn’t just more humane than foster care, it’s safer than foster care. And the real reason for horrors such as the death of Jordan Belliveau has nothing to do with any supposed “policy of reunifying families at all costs” at Gay Courter, a volunteer “guardian ad litem (what most states call a Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA)) claims in a Times op-ed column.
On the contrary, it’s almost always because of caseworkers so horribly overloaded with cases of children who don’t need to be in the system that they lack the time to properly investigate any case. As a result, they make terrible mistakes in all directions. Even as they take many children needlessly they leave others in, or return them to, dangerous homes.
Those false premises are laid out most clearly in Ms. Courter’s op-ed. Since I’ve followed Florida child welfare for about 30 years now, and NCCPR has issued reports on child welfare dating back to 2000, I am familiar with Ms. Courter’s work. I know that, like most people in child welfare, she has only the best of intentions. I also know that at least one of you has written admiringly about her in the past. I, on the other hand, am that guy who keeps saying those terrible things about the whole approach to child welfare taken by the Times and the Miami Herald. I make no apology for that. When children’s lives are at stake - literally – good intentions aren’t enough.
The Times and the Herald didn’t make a good child welfare system bad. But they helped make a bad child welfare system worse – and they helped to halt and reverse what had been the first real improvement in that system in decades. You are in a position to do better. And if you are willing to reconsider old assumptions then you can help break the cycle of tragedy-investigate-repeat that Ms. Carlton aptly described in her column.