Sunday, May 13, 2007

Doublethink in the desert

Last week’s Blog noted that Arizona has descended into a state of perennial foster-care panic. Between October 2002 and October 2004, removals of children soared 40 percent. They’ve stayed at that same level ever since. And, of course, instead of making children safer, it only further overwhelmed workers. Deaths of children previously “known to the system” set a record in 2005.

One reason the panic has never been allowed to abate is that one of the state’s more powerful media voices has never allowed it to abate. Almost everyone who encouraged the panic back in 2002 and 2003 soon realized it was a mistake (they don’t acknowledge this, but by about May of 2003 their rhetoric had changed dramatically). But one columnist still thinks the answer to every child welfare problem is “take the child and run.”

So every time there’s a chance the panic might calm down, Arizona Republic metro columnist Laurie Roberts finds a way to help keep it going. She’s written dozens of columns, all with the same theme: Arizona Child Protective Services is not aggressive enough about taking away children.

It’s never hard to find horror stories to bolster that particular false premise. Child welfare systems tend to be arbitrary, capricious and cruel. They make horrible mistakes in both directions – leaving some children in dangerous homes, even as other children are taken from homes that are safe or could be made safe with the right kinds of help, only to face the terrors of foster care.

And if there’s a horrible mistake, Laurie Roberts wants to hear about it – so long as it’s only the first kind. Any CPS worker who wants to resist the state’s feeble efforts to turn the tide and do more to help families knows that all she has to do is feed information about the latest God-awful screw-up to Roberts and there’ll be a column, or two, or three, to scare workers away from keeping families together. (These workers would not have such power, of course, if CPS agencies weren’t so obsessive about secrecy.)

But it’s not the columns Roberts writes that are the problem - when an agency screws up, its failings need to see the light of day - it’s the columns she doesn’t. You’ll never find a Laurie Roberts column about, say, Patrick Traufler, or Emily Mays or Dwight Hill – because they had the temerity to die in foster care. And impoverished birth parents can write and call and e-mail forever, asking her to please look into their claims of wrongful removal. It’s not going to happen. The one and only time I know of where she did write about such a case was on one of the very rare occasions when the injustice reached into the kind of middle-class family with whom journalists can identify.

Sadly, this is not all that unusual among reporters and columnists. But I would have thought Roberts’ most recent column might have made her wonder.

It involved a caseworker’s dealings with a father who had a long record of trouble with the law and with CPS. In 2002, she recommended reuniting the father and his children; he’d lost them to a neglect charge in 2000. Four months later, the same father allegedly beat one of his children. Six weeks later, that case was closed. In 2004, the youngest child allegedly suffered serious physical abuse at the hands of the father – who, by that time was romantically involved with the caseworker from the 2002 cases.

CPS found nothing wrong with this because the caseworker said she did not become romantically involved with the father until a year after the 2002 cases were closed. Not only was the caseworker not sanctioned, she was promoted.

Ironies abound here. First, in suggesting that the caseworker-turned-paramour had a role in closing the second case in 2002, Roberts writes this: “While a judge would have had to approve the plan, CPS workers tell me that judges rely heavily on the case manager's input and that it would be rare for such a thing to happen without the case manager's OK.”

That is true. But you almost never hear caseworkers admit that they are the ones with the real power. On the contrary, ask them about wrongful removal and they’ll make absurd claims about “checks and balances” that don’t really exist, and then piously proclaim that “we don’t take away children, only a judge can do that.” And journalists like Roberts tend to be the first to buy it.

Even more striking, however, are the overall allegations against the caseworker. They bear a remarkable resemblance to things often said by those claiming their children were wrongfully taken. Often these parents allege that caseworkers behaved unethically, threatened them, retaliated against them for going public or just plain lied in their reports to superiors and to the courts. Or, as a far more open-minded columnist wrote years ago, quoting a mother who had strong evidence for such behavior: “They lie, they lie, they awfully lie.”

But that columnist was exceptional. More often, when an accused birth parent says it, the Laurie Roberts’ of the world roll their eyes, and send the e-mails and letters into the circular file.

In fairness to the overwhelming majority of caseworkers who try their best in an often-impossible job, outright lying probably is rare - though not quite as rare as romantic relationships with accused child abusers. The more common problem is rooted in human nature: We all tend to hear what we want to hear or expect to hear. That’s one reason the pervasive secrecy surrounding CPS is so dangerous and it’s why all interviews conducted by CPS workers should be tape-recorded.

But it takes more than human nature to believe that when workers allegedly behave unethically it is only in the direction of keeping children with abusers, and the same workers never, ever stretch the truth to take away a child.

Believing that takes a willful act of denial.