Monday, June 12, 2006

Foster care in America: Primetime gets it wrong, part four

  In one of his excellent mystery novels, Chinese émigré writer Qiu Xiaolong tells us that in China, under Mao Zedong, the People’s Daily sometimes would run stories about “National Model Workers,” designed to inspire the masses.  One also can find such stories in the United States.  In fact, they’re a staple of child welfare reporting.  You’ve almost certainly seen them.  They’re the day/week/month/year-in-the-life-of-a-caseworker stories.  Sometimes, they are touted as an inside look at the system.  And sometimes, reporters break the usual boundaries of the genre and achieve something close to that.  But often, they are a whitewash.

            That’s not necessarily the fault of the journalists who write them.  No child welfare agency lets reporters choose the worker at random.  They’re almost always, well, National Model Workers -- the ones portrayed as having boundless enthusiasm, astonishing dedication, unusual savvy and far more experience than the typical CPS caseworker, who only lasts a year or two.

Such was the case when Primetime did the National Model Worker story as part of its report about foster care on June 1.  One actually saw very little of the NMW on the air.  The follow-her-around segment was bumped to a webcast and there also was a print story on the ABC News website.

The story begins with a basic factual error, one of several in the program.  It refers to all CPS workers as “social workers.”  The NMW is, in fact, a social worker.  But that’s actually unusual.  Typically, a bachelor’s degree in anything and a quickie training course is the extent of the qualifications.  Thus, the impression ABC News seeks to leave, that removal decisions are made carefully, by trained professionals, often is incorrect.

A staple of almost every National Model Worker story is a complaint like this from the caseworker:

"If we remove we acted too quickly, and if we don't remove and something bad happens, we did not pay enough attention."

That’s a claim I addressed in this Blog on April 17:

            “Caseworkers for child protection agencies are not jack-booted thugs who relish destroying families.  By and large they are dedicated and caring.  But they’re often underprepared, undertrained and overwhelmed.  But I lose sympathy for caseworkers when they complain that they’re subject to terrible criticism and sanction if they take away too few children – or too many.  Countless news stories have accepted at face value the claim by caseworkers that “you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”   
            “I have been following child welfare for 30 years now, first as a reporter, more recently as an advocate. In all that time, in child welfare agencies all over the country, I have never seen a caseworker fired, demoted, suspended or even slapped on the wrist for taking away too many children. All of these things have happened to workers who left even one child in a dangerous home … caseworkers know full well that when it comes to taking away children you’re not damned if you do and damned if you don’t – you’re only damned if you don’t.”

Primetime’s National Model Worker continues:

"I hear crazy rumors out there like we get bonuses for removing kids. Removing kids is the saddest part of the job. We are underpaid and overworked, but we do what is best for the children under our watch."

No, workers dont get bonuses for removing kids.  But states get bounties for every finalized adoption over a baseline number, an issue that has arisen in connection with adoption tragedies in Michigan and Ohio.

Im sure the National Model Workers sadness about removing children is genuine.  But she also said this:

"I believe that children have the right to an education, to medical needs, mental-health needs and permanency,"

So far, so good.  But she continues:

"And if that can't happen in the home with their natural parents for one reason or another, if a parent is not providing those needs, then the children need to be removed."

Regardless, it seems, of whether the parent is at fault. That is a brief for the confiscation of the children of the poor.  If thats now the model workers feel, what about the rest?

The NMW is heard making this comment after taking children from parents whose children were, according to Diane Sawyer not being sent to school and left dangerously unsupervised. Thats it, aside from the claim that child protective services had been monitoring this family for years.  Perhaps things would be different had they tried helping the family  not with a cookie-cutter service plan full of meaninglesscounseling and parent education but with concrete help geared to what the family actually needed. 

But now that theyve been taken away, Sawyer tells us that the children are frightened, but safe.  Frightened?  Definitely.  Safe? Maybe  given the rate of abuse in foster care, no one can be sure.

But the National Model Worker was the personification of restraint compared to Diane Sawyer.  She accompanies our NMW to check up on a single mother, who like many impoverished single mothers, sometimes gets overwhelmed and yells at her child.  The camera is there for what Maine foster parent Mary Callahan would call the gotcha moment, when the child imitates her mother yelling at her.

That child is not removed  yet.  But there is no indication that this mother is getting anything but the usual counseling and parent education” – nothing to actually ease the burdens overwhelming her.  So what happenes after they work with her for years?

Back in the NMWs car, the multi-millionaire anchorwoman who probably hasnt had to cope with a mundane chore of day to day living  much less the stresses of poverty  in decades asks the NMW: What keeps you from wanting to take some of these parents and just shake them and say: Whats the matter with you? these are your kids! Come on!

This prompted the following response from Charles Baker, the retired CEO of the Presbyterian Child Welfare Agency in Kentucky:

Instead of "shaking her," shouldn't we be shaking Congress for failure to raise the minimum wage? Or for any commitment to provide adequate hosing or health care for all US children? Shouldn't we be shaking the media for not interviewing a single expert for any alternative to child rescue?

Later this week: Primetime saves the worst for last.


In Monday’s Blog, I quoted the “National Model Worker,” the Kentucky caseworker ABC News followed around for its Primetime program about foster care.  At one point she says:  "I hear crazy rumors out there like we get bonuses for removing kids….”

            As it happens, NBC News also was in Kentucky recently, following up on some excellent reporting by the Lexington Herald-Leader.  The newspaper disclosed pressure on caseworkers to remove children from their homes needlessly and rush them to adoption, in order for the state to collect the bounties offered by the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act.

            And in this story, NBC reports that in Kentucky, workers don’t get extra cash, but they can get extra time off.  According to the story, “ States can earn federal bonuses for keeping adoption numbers high,and in Kentucky workers can even get extra vacation” [emphasis added].

            Good thing somebody’s checking those “crazy rumors.”