Sunday, January 27, 2008

The floggings will continue until morale improves

If you’re ever feeling a little down and discouraged, and you need a pep talk, here’s a word of advice: Don’t call Adrian Fenty, mayor of Washington D.C.

As was discussed in last week’s Blog, Fenty arbitrarily and capriciously fired six people after the death of four children known-to-the-system. (We still don’t know who the six are, but it appears that Fenty simply swung his ax at anyone who came near the case.) A few days later, he held a meeting with the demoralized caseworkers who still work at D.C.’s Child and Family Services Agency.

According to a story in The Washington Post, here’s how it went:

As Fenty (D) began an address that his aides said was aimed at motivating 200 District social workers Wednesday after having fired six of their colleagues, he heard a hissing sound. Who was that? Fenty demanded, to no avail. Collecting himself, he continued his remarks, challenging the employees to lift their performance, only to be interrupted again, this time by a woman who complained loudly that she felt disrespected by the mayor.
Fenty demanded her name. "You're dismissed," he said after she identified herself, waving his hand for emphasis. The crowd murmured. Anyone else who intended to be disrespectful could leave with her, the mayor added.
At least 20 others got up and walked out.

If the mayor’s arrogance were not bad enough, there’s the small matter of hypocrisy. When it comes to the problems that continue to plague the D.C. child welfare agency, problems which may have contributed to the deaths, the Mayor may well bear at least as much responsibility as any of the workers he fired. If he really wants to set an example for taking responsibility for child welfare failure, he’ll have to fire himself.

Because there is no elected official in Washington D.C. in a better position to know what a mess things are in child welfare than Adrian Fenty.

The D.C. child welfare system has had serious problems for decades. It holds the dubious distinction of being the only system to get so bad it was once taken over by a federal court. The court still oversees a far-reaching consent decree. And while clearly the system has been improving, those improvements have come far too slowly.

But Adrian Fenty didn’t just walk in the door. He’s been mayor for a year; plenty of time to review all the court monitor’s reports and get himself up to speed on the state of child welfare. And before he became Mayor he chaired the City Council’s human services committee. I can’t claim to have followed the committee’s deliberations, but I assume that, at least once in awhile, information about the condition of the child welfare system was brought to the committee’s attention.

So fixing child welfare should have been priority one from day one. He should have been looking then to see if the slow pace of reform was due to management resisting change or unable to implement it. If so, that was the time for carefully justified, well-targeted dismissals.

But the mayor didn’t act. And when the warnings grew louder he still didn’t act.
Just over two months ago, the independent court monitor overseeing CFSA’s performance called for “immediate and intensive action” to fix failings in how caseworkers assess the risk to children. Where was the mayor then? But it wasn’t just the Mayor who was AWOL. There was no outcry from the City Council and I have not been able to find a single news story about this report anywhere. What part of “immediate and intensive” don’t the council, the mayor and the entire D.C. news media understand?

But don’t expect any D.C. media to ask these questions. They’re all too mesmerized by Fenty’s supposedly refreshing bluntness and his supposed bold action in firing a bunch of mostly low-level employees.

And that’s not unusual. Although I was a reporter for 19 years there are a couple of things about my former profession I still don’t get. One of them is why reporters so often fall in love with anyone who promises to kick a-- and take names.

Almost inevitably, the arrogance – the sneer and the swagger – are confused with candor and frankness. In fact, anyone can be candid in dishing out blame, when you’re blaming someone else. In part the journalistic swooning may be simply that such public officials are good copy. But I think it runs deeper. It boils down to the fact that often they are saying, out loud and on the record, what reporters say to each other in the newsroom.

Inevitably, we all remember our worst encounters with municipal, state or federal “bureaucrats.” Anyone ever remember the DMV clerk who worked quickly and efficiently and greeted you with a smile? Not likely. Civil servants on the front lines whether police, teachers, or child protective services workers, are easy scapegoats for very big problems. And as reporters have grown more affluent (relatively speaking) they become more distant in every respect from people who often make less money doing harder jobs.

So anyone who comes in promising to kick around those “dopey bureaucrats” (to use the favorite phrase of another Fenty type who wreaked havoc on child welfare in his city for years) becomes, at least at first, a media darling.

Except, of course, when someone tries it in a newsroom.

The Fenty personality-type is familiar in newsrooms. It sometimes turns up among the less distinguished “investigative” reporters. The sneer and swagger permeate their dealings with people, and bleed through into their copy. In contrast, the very best in the business harbor as much, or more, outrage at real injustice, but still manage to treat everyone they encounter with dignity and respect – just ask anyone who, for example, has had the privilege of meeting the legendary team of Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, formerly of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Time magazine. The best in the business are like my favorite journalism professor, the late Phyl Garland: She always knew the difference between being tough and being mean.

When too many sneer-and-swagger types rise through the ranks, or when one makes it to the very top, an entire newsroom can wind up governed by a hierarchy of fear. The results can range from debilitating to disastrous, and at least once recently the disaster became a public spectacle.

Fenty’s rants about the D.C. government sound remarkably like the things another
kick a-- take names type said when he took over the job of running what is arguably America’s most important newsroom. His name was Howell Raines, and his tenure as executive editor of The New York Times didn’t go too well.

The case can be made that, in some government agencies, and in newsrooms, creating a hierarchy of fear can get results – at first. (Because of the tendency to set off foster-care panics, I wouldn’t say a child welfare agency is one of them.) But the combination of terror, burnout, and resentment ultimately backfires. At that point, rather than blame the tyrant, the reporters tend to blame a “bureaucracy resistant to change” – except of course when the tyrant was running the newsroom, and the reporters were the bureaucracy.

The real lessons

Last week, I also promised to answer a question I’ve been getting ever since I began dissenting from the Mayor’s approach. The question was put best by someone identified as jgarcia2 in a section of comments on the Washington Post website in response to the op ed column I wrote about this case. Writes Mr. or Ms. Garcia:

It's clear that Mr. Wexler disagrees with the mayor's reaction; however, it's unclear to me what he believes would have been the most appropriate community reaction or follow-up to this case. I get the feeling that he believes that we should have just chalked it up as an unfortunate incident; that there's nothing for the community to learn or do here as far preventing future things like this from happening.

That’s a fair question, and I’m going to defer to someone with more expertise than I to answer it. The following is from the City Council testimony of Judith Meltzer, the court monitor overseeing the D.C. child welfare agency:

Missed Opportunities with the Community
The District of Columbia’s pioneering work to establish the Healthy Families Thriving Communities Collaboratives grew out of a theory of change which acknowledges that public child welfare agencies, good, bad or indifferent, cannot protect children without effective community partnerships. The mantra of the early community partnership work in jurisdictions around the country was “Protecting Children is Everyone’s Business.”

The vision for the District’s Collaboratives over a decade ago was that their work to support families in their neighborhoods and communities was to be accompanied by out-stationing public child welfare workers in the community. The vision was that CFSA workers working in partnership with and with the support of neighborhood workers could more effectively engage families, link them to supportive services and prevent child abuse and neglect. This decentralization has been in the discussion and planning phases in the District for more than a decade. We know, from evidence around the country, that child welfare workers who are out-stationed in schools, neighborhoods, and other community settings are more likely to develop effective working relationships with residents, advocates, and a range of other service providers in the community to help address community and individual family’s needs.

It is a very sad commentary that none of the neighbors, family or family friends who knew the Jacks/Fogle children and family called the child protection agency to seek help. They either did not know who to call or were themselves afraid of the child welfare agency, viewing it only as a route to foster care and more trouble for struggling families. This relationship between the broader community and the child welfare system and its partners must change. The District’s plan for out-stationing workers in the community, in schools and with the Collaboratives has moved forward, stalled, and moved forward again, but has never come to fruition. Current CFSA plans call for moving workers to the neighborhoods and communities of the District this year. This plan needs to be implemented quickly along with the related work to change the ways in which child welfare workers interact with the schools, with the Collaboratives, with the faith based community, residents, advocates and with other community partners so that there are expanded channels of support and communication to both identify and support families in need.

Again, the outcome for Ms. Jacks and her children might have been different if CFSA and a network of helping agencies and community representatives were viewed as partners, and if concerned members of the community had confidence that together they could get help for families.