Monday, May 21, 2007

Piling on in Arizona

Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts wrote another column on the case discussed in last week’s blog, this time mostly to gloat about all the outraged reaction the first column produced. But she also implied that, for all the talk of change at the Arizona child welfare agency over the past four years, nothing has really improved.

She’s right, of course. She just got the reasons wrong. Things haven’t improved because Roberts helped set off a foster-care panic in Arizona four years ago, and even as others wised up, she’s done everything she can to keep it going. So workers remain overwhelmed with cases and they keep on making bad decisions, in both directions.

Roberts also writes that “Last Friday, this newspaper sued CPS, seeking records on three Tucson children who have recently turned up dead on the agency's watch.” Good idea. But Roberts doesn’t explain why the Republic showed no similar interest when two Tucson children died in foster care in rapid succession in 2005. Nor does she explain why she’s never written about those cases, even though the trial of one foster parent took place just last week.

Similarly, an editorial today in the Tucson Citizen, the smaller of the two dailies in that city, says of the recent deaths: “These cases need to be investigated in detail, not only by CPS, but by other authorities working independently from the child-welfare agency.” The editorial notes that had the children been taken from their parents “such moves may have saved their lives.” But the newspaper makes no call to investigate the deaths of the foster children, whose lives might have been saved had they been left in their own homes.

Clearly some children count more than others.

Meanwhile, whoever leaked the file on the Arizona CPS caseworker who wound up as the paramour of a parent she had once investigated had a hefty budget for photocopies. The same case became the lead story in the Citizen last week; and that story found a way to turn one caseworker’s blatant conflict of interest into an attack on all efforts to keep families together. Tucson’s alternative weekly also got the documents, and ran a story pretty much like everybody else’s story.

All of which had to be galling to the editors at the Arizona Daily Star, the other daily in Tucson. When you’ve been beaten by just about everybody, there is enormous pressure to find some way to “advance” the story – or at least look like you have done so.

And that might explain the front-page story in the Star on Saturday, which purported to find two more cases of misbehavior by Arizona CPS workers. And since that totals three, it must, of course, be a pattern.

One of the cases found by the Star reporter (the same one who wrote the highly-selective story about financial incentives discussed in NCCPR’s May 7 Blog, by the way) was, indeed, very serious. It involved a caseworker who was “investigated by police for an inappropriate romantic relationship with one of his teen-age charges in 2003.”

If such charges are true, a worker should be fired. Unless, of course, he’s already on sick leave and quits right after the investigation is completed – as happened in this case. Further punishment becomes a police matter, but, according to the Star story, police did not bring charges because the teenager did not cooperate.

And all of this happened three-and-a-half years ago.

If anyone would appear to be culpable here it is the staff at the group home where the teenager lived. The Star story is not entirely clear, but it appears they waited 11 months before reporting their suspicions to CPS. But group homes are not this reporter’s target, efforts to keep families together are.

The second case involves a 28-year veteran of the agency, who now works as a court liaison. The man’s record apparently was unblemished for the first 23 of those years. Then, according to the Star story:

“…he was charged with domestic violence after throwing something at a young relative during an argument with his wife, police reports and court records show. The charges were dismissed after he completed a treatment plan that included counseling and attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.”

And that’s it. No known problems before, none since. And it happened more than four years ago, in November 2002. But now, since the Star named the man, he and his family can relive all the anguish. I rarely agree with the people who run child welfare agencies, but this time, Ken Deibert, deputy director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security got it right:

"Child-welfare workers can't have problems in their lives?" Deibert told the Star. "It seems like if somebody has a rough spot in their life, they get help, they get services, they get their lives together. What's wrong with that?"

Both the “newly-revealed” incidents occurred before the current leadership team was in place at the child welfare agency. And while I’m glad to blame a lot of what’s wrong with Arizona child welfare on the current Governor, the second incident even predated her taking office.

None of which mattered to the Star reporter, who spun the three cases into still another cheap shot at keeping families together, and a lead describing the incidents as “several cases coming to light in which CPS caseworkers’ personal actions appear to have been in conflict with their professional responsibility.” (Various dictionaries disagree over whether three qualifies as “several,” by the way.) The Star copy desk went the reporter one-better, slapping on the story a headline that read: “Caseworkers’ acts often seem at odds with their CPS jobs,” [emphasis added.]

A lot of caseworkers are likely to complain to Star editors about that, and you can bet they’ll go the other extreme, and assign what I’ve come to call the “national model worker story,” (See the June 12, 2006 Blog entry for a discussion of this genre) in which a CPS worker of the agency’s choosing is followed around and gets to complain about being “damned if we do and damned if we don’t.” That kind of story is equally misleading. Particularly since, when it comes to taking away children, caseworkers are only damned if they don’t.

And then what? The foster-care panic surges on, the children keep on dying, and it is left to others to clean up the mess.