Sunday, July 15, 2007

An Arizona newspaper's double standards are showing

Last May, I wrote about a reporter for the Arizona Daily Star who produced a front-page story condemning a tiny financial incentive to encourage caseworkers not to needlessly take children from their homes. The incentive was intended to balance the many huge incentives, financial and otherwise, to take children needlessly.

It didn’t work. Arizona is in a state of perennial foster-care panic. From October 2002 through September 2004, removals shot up 40 percent – and they’ve stayed at that high level ever since.

None of this mattered so the reporter. In explaining to me why he’d shut all dissent out of his story condemning the incentive, he wrote in an e-mail that:

“Those decisions should be made based strictly on the best interest of the children involved. Financial motivations, or even the perception someone could be swayed by financial motivations, are inappropriate.”

Unexplained was why the only “financial motivation” to interest him was the puny one favoring birth parents, not the huge ones favoring taking away children. But surely, if another story turned up where one of those other financial incentives was a key element, he’d raise just as much of a stink about it, right?

Not exactly.

The same reporter had another story on the front page of the Star Sunday. This one is something of an archetype: The adoptive parents who fill their home with lots and lots – and lots – of severely disabled children; they become the subject of any number of gooey feature stories at the local and sometimes national level – until it turns out all is not well behind the scenes.

The most notorious example recently is the case of the parents in Ohio who adopted 11 special needs children and then kept them in what prosecutors called cages.

Now it turns out that such a couple in Arizona also was the subject of one complaint after another alleging abuse, and that, at one point, all 16 of their foster and adoptive children had been removed from the home. The adoptive mother, who is separated from the adoptive father, says two since have been returned. (At one point, by the way, 19 children were living in the home.)

The children were not adopted from Arizona; the story doesn’t say where they came from.

But every state that placed a child in the home would have to have done a home study - which means they would have to know how many other children, all with severe disabilities, also were living there. So why didn’t anyone question whether it was a good idea to place a disabled child in a “home” with 15 other disabled children?

Probably because of the financial incentives.

States receive a bounty from the federal government for every finalized adoption of a foster child over a baseline number. The bounty can range from $4,000 to at least $8,000 per child, and the children in this house are likely to bring $8,000 bounties. If the adoption fails, states don’t have to give the bounties back; in fact, if they place the children again, they can collect another bounty for each one, as long as they exceed their baseline. This creates a huge incentive for quick-and-dirty, slipshod placements.

There’s also a non-financial incentive – the only time a child welfare agency gets good press is when it gets those adoption numbers up.

But apparently the Star reporter has decided that he can live with “financial motivations, or even the perception someone could be swayed by financial motivations” after all.

Because he never even raises the issue.