Sunday, October 14, 2007

Take that, Osama bin Laden! Now you'll never be a foster parent in Ohio!

We can all breathe easier now. Under legislation likely to reach the Governor’s desk soon, Osama Bin Laden will be barred from becoming a foster parent in Ohio. Under the bill, terrorism and soliciting or providing support for terrorism will be added to the list of crimes that automatically disqualify foster parents.

And authorities will be watching out for any record of such crimes because they’ll be required to perform more rigorous background checks. Because Ohio lawmakers know that the easiest way to cheap glory after a foster-child dies is to wallow in background-check fetishism. But the Ohio story is particularly instructive because of a new wrinkle. The quick-and-dirty solutions and the stereotypes promoted by news organizations are coming back to haunt them.

The story begins, of course, with a tragedy.

Tragedy changes child welfare systems. When media pay sustained attention to some horrible failing in the system, usually the death of a child “known to the system,” that system will change. Usually, it will change for the worse. Usually, the attention will only set off a foster-care panic.

And, as noted previously on this Blog, foster-care panics don’t work in reverse. Even if the child died in foster care, that still often leads to an increase in placements. That’s largely because of a pernicious double-standard that characterizes much child welfare coverage. If the child dies at the hands of a birth parent, it’s supposedly proof that the system does too much to try to keep families together, and broad systemic changes – most of which boil down to “take the child and run” – are needed. If the killer is a foster parent, the case is written off as an aberration, and it’s assumed the problem can be solved by visiting foster homes more often, toughening licensing standards and doing better “background checks” on foster parents.

So even when the child dies in foster care, the result of all the press attention often is the same lousy system only bigger.

Systems only get better when the coverage gets more sophisticated. That’s what happened in Maine, after Logan Marr was taken needlessly from her mother and killed by his foster mother and in Missouri after Dominic James was taken needlessly from his father and killed by his foster father. In both states, news coverage began by focusing on the narrow issues of visits, licensing and background checks. But in Maine, reporters began to wonder why a child was more likely to be trapped in foster care in that state than in all but five other states. (When poverty rates were factored in Maine’s record may have been the nation’s worst). In Missouri the Springfield News-Leader and then the St. Louis Post-Dispatch began asking why Missouri was taking children at a rate well above the national average – and why the Springfield area took children at a rate far above the state average.

Perhaps most important, the newspapers’ approach to birth parents changed. For starters, birth parents began to exist. They were quoted in news stories. And they were treated as three-dimensional human beings, instead of monsters who appeared in the newspapers only when they were accused of torturing or murdering their children. The News-Leader even sent a team of journalists to Alabama to examine the groundbreaking reforms there.

The focus on the real problems led to real solutions. Today, at least 22 states hold proportionately more children in foster care than Maine, and the number of children taken from their parents has dropped significantly. Missouri also has seen a marked drop in removals. And in both states, there has been no compromise of safety.

But it’s been a different story in Ohio in the wake of the death of another foster child, Marcus Fiesel. He, too, was taken needlessly from his mother, Donna Trevino. He was taken by the county-run child welfare agency in Butler County, near Cincinnati, an agency plagued with problems for many years, and an agency that takes children at one of the highest rates in Ohio.

The newspapers in Butler County, essentially one newspaper under a variety of names, did the best they could. But they have a small staff and an even smaller amount of space for news stories. The papers, part of the Cox chain, are laboring under a “redesign” that makes the original USA Today look like The Wall Street Journal. Under the circumstances, the reporters and editors performed admirably, especially the county government reporter at the time the story broke.

But the dominant newspaper in the region, the Cincinnati Enquirer, performed less admirably. They “flooded the zone” with reporters, but, with one notable exception, those reporters largely regurgitated conventional wisdom. From day one, they became mired in background-check fetishism; feeding readers a steady diet of stories and commentary suggesting that, if only background checks were tightened, such tragedies wouldn’t happen.

That’s not entirely wrong, of course. Comprehensive background checks make sense; occasionally they will weed out a dangerous potential foster parent who might have gotten through otherwise. That makes them worth doing, as long as they’re done sensibly, without creating the debacle that occurred in Utah, where botched implementation of an extra level of checking wound up delaying kinship placements for weeks and actually increased the danger to children. (See “Utah’s Big Bureaucratic Blunder,” the September 16 post on this Blog).

Where background checks become a problem is when they become the be-all-and-end-all of reform, a way for politicians and journalists to declare victory and get out without facing the real problems. In other words, exactly what’s going on in Ohio now.

Lack of a complete background check isn’t the main reason for foster-care tragedies. Not even close. There were plenty of warning signs already known about the foster parents who killed Marcus Fiesel and he was placed in that home anyway. That’s what often happens when child welfare systems take too many children. They wind up begging for beds. And beggars can’t be choosers.

But the Enquirer made up its mind almost from day one. Within weeks of the discovery that Marcus was dead, an Enquirer editorial made clear that real change already was off the agenda:

...we urge policymakers, agencies and the public - all of us - to focus on three critical, and practical, ways to improve the odds for children like Marcus. They are:
--Fine-tuning, or simply enforcing, regulations that will directly improve foster children's care.
--Improving the recruitment, retention and training of strong, stable foster care families.
--Improving communication about the foster care system - and within it.

And while, of course, there was no declaration of an equally-narrow focus on the news side, the news stories stuck to a similarly narrow focus.

Meanwhile, coverage of child welfare in the Enquirer’s home county, Hamilton, consisted almost entirely of horror stories about deaths of children “known to the system,” allegedly at the hands of vile, sadistic birth parents. So it’s no wonder that most readers, and Ohio legislators, thought of all birth parents in those terms. Even Marcus Fiesel’s mother wound up vilified, excoriated in editorials and letters columns to a far greater degree than the foster parents who had tied Marcus up, stuffed him into a closet and, after he died there, burned the body. (One reporter was a notable exception, but her finely-crafted, carefully nuanced portraits of the birth mother were, in effect, drowned out by the chorus of birth parent bashing.)

So it’s no wonder that legislators quickly figured out that the path to cheap glory was to cash in on background-check fetishism. They’ve gained plenty of good press with legislation to increase training for foster parents (as if foster parents need to be trained not to kill foster children) toughen licensing standards and, most of all, do lots of new, improved background checks. In the process, lawmakers may have stuck a couple of time bombs in the bill. The bill goes beyond to ruling out Osama Bin Laden. It also may rule out some fit relatives, including those who may have committed minor offenses long ago, and, under some circumstances the bill may rule out one-time battered women from becoming foster parents. And, while the language is not clear, it may be setting the stage for a Utah-style debacle.

As this is written the Ohio Legislature is on the verge of passing a final version of the bill, after which you can bet they will preen about how they “cracked down on child abuse” and issue pious proclamations about how, thanks to their background-check bill, Marcus Fiesel did not die in vain. Then they’ll declare victory and get out.

The Enquirer has already praised them for it. When the bill passed the State Senate in June, the Enquirer wrote in an editorial that “with this action the Legislature has chosen not to let [Marcus Fiesel’s] brief life pass unnoticed. His legacy can be rules that will serve as safeguards for other children. “

But the praise was a little premature. The bill acquired an amendment in the Ohio House. It seems the Enquirer overplayed its hand, the background check fetishism and the birth-parent bashing combined in a way no one could have expected – and now the stereotypes Ohio newspapers helped create are coming back to haunt them. One could cherish the irony, if not for the fact that it’s likely to make the entire state child welfare system even worse.

That story in a future post.