Sunday, October 21, 2007

When background-check fetishism backfires

Last week, I told the story of how Ohio lawmakers, and journalists, became mired in background-check fetishism. They did not respond to the death of Marcus Fiesel, who was killed by his foster parents, by asking why the county that put him in foster care takes children at one of the highest rates in the state. They did not respond by asking if the overuse of foster-care was prompting the county to lower standards. They simply assumed that better “background checks” would solve the problem.

But the Cincinnati Enquirer went further. Apparently the newspaper decided that if the counties weren’t doing good enough background checks, the Enquirer would do the checks itself. All the newspaper needed were the names of all the state’s foster parents, and other pertinent identifying information.

The newspaper filed a request under the state’s freedom of information act. But the state agency that oversees the county agencies that run foster care in Ohio refused. The issue is now in court.

But the Ohio Legislature appears poised to pre-empt the issue. The version of the background check bill which passed the Ohio House of Representatives includes an amendment specifically keeping foster parent names a secret.

News organizations are having a fit – and they’re right. It wouldn’t make a huge difference if newspapers could do their own checks on foster parents, because the reason such parents get into the system isn’t primarily because agencies don’t do enough checking, it’s because agencies are so desperate for beds that they lower standards. But it might make some difference, and that’s reason enough. It just might prevent a tragedy, and if it can’t do that, at least it might help hold agencies accountable for their errors after-the-fact.

But the debate actually reveals something much sadder: how far behind most of Ohio is when it comes to best practice in child welfare. It also reveals how the state’s journalists sewed the seeds of their own defeat on this issue: creating and nurturing the very stereotypes that have come back to haunt them.

The case for secrecy boiled down to one argument: the Myth of the Stalking Birth Parent. After all, if news accounts are to be believed, birth parents who lose their children to foster care are the quintessence of evil. The only time you hear about them is when they’ve tortured, raped or brutalized a child. It’s not that these stories are inaccurate, it’s that they leave the public confusing the aberration with the norm. And, no, I’m not saying the aberrations shouldn’t be reported. I’m saying the stories that put the aberrations into context are missing.

And even birth parents who are not sadistic brutes get demonized. It happened to Marcus Fiesel’s birth mother, who was vilified in editorials and letters columns, and by some politicians, far more than the foster parents who stuffed Marcus in a closet until he died and then burned the body.

The stereotypes run so deep that the evil of birth parents was the one issue on which all legislators could agree. The sponsor of the secrecy bill, himself a former foster parent, conjured up horror story scenarios of birth parents stalking and terrorizing foster parents. A backer of openness responded – by arguing that birth parents are so sneaky and conniving they’ll find the foster parents even if agencies keep their names secret.

But the overwhelming majority of birth parents are nothing like the stereotype. They haven’t brutalized their children. They have not raped their children. They have not tortured their children. They are a lot more likely to simply be poor, or perhaps to be poor, uneducated and depressed – like Marcus Fiesel’s birth mother. And whatever else one may think of her, I don’t think anyone familiar with her believes she ever was likely to track down and assault a foster parent.

So the fraction of dangerous birth parents is tiny to begin with. It is even more absurd to think that among that tiny faction are lots of people who will obtain lists of foster parents and then manage to track down the particular foster parent who has their child.

In fact, among the 30,000 news stories about child welfare in NCCPR’s database, I don’t recall even one reflecting that scenario. There are very rare examples of other bad things happening: birth parents kidnapping their children during visits and even assaulting a caseworker. In one recent Kentucky case, the caseworker was killed. And the fact that I don’t think I have a news account of a birth parent assaulting a foster parent doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. But it is so rare that any foster parent who doesn’t want his name made public as a result of this fear also had better never leave the house – because I’ll bet the odds of being hurt in an auto accident are far greater.

But the larger issue is what this says about how foster care is done in Ohio. Best practice in child welfare says that, in most cases, birth parents are not just going to know who the foster parents are, they’re going to be seeing a lot of each other. In the best programs foster parents work as mentors to birth parents – working together to help the child. It’s common practice in Cuyahoga County as part of the Family to Family program (a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation which also funds NCCPR).

It is not done in every case, nor should it be; some birth parents really are a danger to their children. But in good systems it is becoming the rule rather than the exception.

Yet no one from the Governor on down seems to realize this. Certainly no one at the state agency that oversees Ohio’s county child welfare agencies has pointed it out – on the contrary, they seem to be reinforcing the fear-mongering by supporting secrecy. So one can only wonder about how far from best practice things really are in most of Ohio.

And saddest of all, most journalists seem to believe the stereotypes as well.

The secrecy amendment has produced an enormous amount of coverage and lots and lots of outraged editorials – the quantity and volume of journalistic outrage always tends to increase when reporters’ own interests are at stake. But none of these stories or editorials confronts the foster parents’ fear head on; none tries to actually refute it with facts about birth parents. Rather the editorials offer some decent arguments about avoiding another tragedy like the death of Marcus Fiesel and a lot of the usual boilerplate about the public’s right to know, which always sounds self-serving coming from journalists.

One can only wonder if legislators would have been so quick to vote their irrational fears of birth parents if news coverage hadn’t done so much to stoke those fears in the first place.