Sunday, March 30, 2008

When the crusade passes by

Three weeks ago, I wrote about how it looks as though there’s finally been some significant improvement in Florida. Statewide, the number of children taken from their parents in 2007 declined 19 percent from 2006, the first real decline in nearly a decade.

But I also wrote that “even now, things are not going well everywhere. [Former Gov.] Jeb Bush’s strategy of decentralizing blame has paid off. The panics that follow high-profile tragedies now tend to be confined to one region.

“So what would happen if, in one region, such a tragedy caught the eye of the local newspaper? And what if, in that region, the leadership at the Florida Department of Children and Families and the privatized lead agency was particularly weak? And what if, in that very same region, you had a newspaper columnist who publicly declared that the role model for his approach to covering child welfare is a demagogue, and a fictional one at that?

What would happen is that the region’s children would become a whole lot less safe. And that is exactly what has happened in the region around Fort Myers in Southwest Florida thanks to a succession of poor leaders, thanks to the largest newspaper in the area, the Fort Myers News-Press and thanks to a News-Press columnist.

As usual, the intentions were good. The paper’s crusade, now entering its third year, has been drenched in earnestness. It was touching when one editorial writer appeared genuinely shocked that a third child known-to-the-system has died – in spite of everything the newspaper had done.

The News-Press is far from the worst example. They’re actually more tolerant of dissent than many newspapers – as long as the dissent doesn’t run to criticizing the newspaper itself. They’ve run several op ed columns from NCCPR and our annual reports decrying the panic get covered – so far, anyway.

And now and then there’s been some remarkably insightful news coverage – even a major story that noted, albeit gingerly, how the News-Press itself contributed to a mass exodus of caseworkers that helped plunge the child welfare agency into chaos. (Unfortunately, the story produced only a bunker-mentality reaction at the editorial page.)

The newspaper tried to go beyond writing stories, convening various gatherings to try to find solutions. But the gatherings always left out birth parents – or anyone who represented them. So instead of solutions, all they got were clichés.

Good intentions don’t make children safer. Sometimes, they put children in more danger. And the crusade at the News-Press is a classic example.

Two years ago, the Fort Myers region was performing badly, but not as badly as most in Florida. It took children at a proportionately lower rate – and it generally did better at keeping children safe.

Then came the horrifying death of Michelle Fontanez. It wasn’t just that there were ample warnings that Michele was in danger, there was allegedly a special callousness in the response of a worker assigned to the case. Told of strong evidence Michelle was in danger, the worker allegedly replied: “Not my problem.”

So the outrage from the News-Press was even greater than usual – and another newspaper children’s crusade was off and running. Unfortunately, the outrage was expressed in all the usual ways: News stories that regurgitated conventional wisdom and reinforced the impression that the kinds of mistakes made in this case are the only kind that agencies make and the only real problem is the failure to move more quickly to take away more children. So of course there was a foster care panic.

Just about everything about the coverage was predictable. After a year of bashing caseworkers, editors began to feel guilty so they assigned what I have come to call the “national model worker story.” The term comes from Mao’s China, where such stories were published to inspire the masses. In the child welfare version, a reporter follows around a caseworker hand-picked by the child welfare agency for her inspiring passion and dedication and learns that the workers are “damned if we do and damned if we don’t” and that life and death decisions for children come down to a “gut feeling” or something like that.

For the News-Press the district office of the Department of Children and Families apparently looked for the caseworker most prone to bash birth parents. The newspaper obliged with a fawning profile. So now the message was reinforced: Good caseworkers rush in and rescue children from evil birth parents, bad caseworkers try to keep families together. Less than a year later, DCF returned the favor – hiring the reporter who wrote the National Model Worker Story to be its regional spokesperson.

But a few months later, another child “known to the system,” Zahid Jones, died. And it was back to caseworker bashing. But this time, it was even more damaging, since in this case, it does not appear the workers were at fault. Indeed, one of them was characterized in what would be her last performance review as “superb.” But that didn’t stop a News-Press columnist from branding her “incompetent.” After weeks of bashing in the News-Press, the column was the last straw. So, like nearly 90 percent of her counterparts in the region in the months since the News-Press crusade began, she quit.

Well before this story was published, I e-mailed the reporter a prediction about how the newspaper’s editorial page would respond to any criticism that it’s coverage prompted a mass exodus of good caseworkers. I wrote that the editorial page would evade the issue by setting up a straw man and suggesting that anyone who questioned the paper’s coverage just didn’t want the paper to be critical.

I predicated they would say:

“Our job is not to do PR for DCF. We're not going to look the other way when children die. We're not going to downplay it or cover it up.”

And here’s what they actually did say after the story ran:

“Press coverage may not always be utterly fair, but the solution to this problem cannot be to soft-pedal news about the abuse and killing of children or run cover for investigators."

Of course, no one was asking the News-Press to “soft-pedal” anything. But is it really too much to ask that the newspaper show sufficient skill to draw a distinction between a caseworker who allegedly says a child in danger is “not my problem” and a caseworker who apparently did everything right but still was unable to protect a child?

Through all this, both the DCF district and the privatized lead agency handling foster care in the Fort Myers area were in turmoil. All the usual heads rolled. The “leaders” who emerged produced a reform plan that reads like something out of Dilbert – it’s filled with plans to hold meetings to make more plans to hold more meetings. And the “leadership” apparently decided that their survival depended on pandering to the newspaper’s worst instincts.

The regional director for a huge swath of Florida, including Fort Myers, even speculated that people in Fort Myers just might be inherently more brutal than people elsewhere. "I don't know if it's supported by data,” Cox said. “All the data you need is Michelle, Zahid, Jason.''

Right. Let’s not let those darned inconvenient facts – like the existence of other places in America where three children “known to the system” have died in two years -- get in the way. And we certainly wouldn’t want to know how Fort Myers is actually doing based on actual data!

But for those who cling to the old fashioned notion of judging systems by data instead of by the latest horror story, here’s what the data show: They show that the efforts of the region’s leaders, and the crusade by the News-Press have left the vulnerable children of greater Fort Myers a whole lot more vulnerable. While entries into care were falling almost everyplace else, in the Fort Myers region they’ve soared 50 percent in two years. But, as usual, that only overwhelmed the workers and left children less safe. In 2007, reabuse of children left in their own homes increased by 15 percent. Foster care recidivism – the proportion of children sent home from foster care who were taken away again soared by 50 percent.

And, in case anyone is wondering who Jason is, I think Cox meant Joshua, as in Joshua Jenkins, the third child known to the system to die in spite of everything the News-Press has written; the third child to die even as the crusade passes by.

I’ll get back to the columnist, and his peculiar choice of role model, in a future post.