Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Look who's talking!

NCCPR has long supported allowing child welfare agencies to comment on specific cases, just as we support opening court hearings in child maltreatment cases and creating a rebuttable presumption that almost all documents in such cases are open records.

The reason for this is to overcome the “veto of silence” in cases where a family tells a journalist that a child was wrongfully removed and the agency spokesperson heaves a theatrical sigh and tells the reporter: “Oh, there’s really so much more to it and we wish we could tell you, really we do, but we just can’t – confidentiality, you know.” Too often, reporters accept this veto of silence and abandon the story – especially when they never really wanted to pursue this kind of story in the first place.

The other reason to give agencies this right is that sometimes there really is “more to it” and in those cases, it’s important that the agency be able to vindicate itself.

But I was never under any illusion that, if given this power, child welfare agencies would tell the whole truth and never shade facts or try to mislead reporters. And in Texas they’re serving up the half-truths with a heaping helping of hypocrisy on the side.

Texas is one of those states where the child welfare agency routinely hides behind “confidentiality” and refuses to comment. And yet, in the case of the Eldorado 464, the agency is blabbing away. I suppose they could claim that there is no confidentiality issue because they’re talking about a whole group of cases, not just one. But from the beginning, Texas CPS has urged the courts to treat this as one case, and, in fact, to treat the YFZ ranch as one family. They can’t have it both ways.

Furthermore, many of the children have the same last names, and their dress makes the girls and women, in particular, quite conspicuous. So whatever issues of individual privacy apply in other cases would apply here.

That doesn’t mean I want Texas CPS to stop talking. On the contrary – I’d like to see this case become a precedent. I’d like to see reporters refuse to accept the veto of silence on any other case, now that Texas CPS has shown that its claims about confidentiality are a sham.

And it would be nice if the claims from Texas CPS, which always seems to come up with a new “revelation” just when it needs one, were treated with a little more skepticism.

The most prominent example actually is one that doesn’t bother me all that much: that’s the claim about the number of women who are underage and pregnant and/or have children of their own. The claim has been widely accepted as fact, with little details, like the fact that CPS is simply guessing based on how old the mothers look to them, relegated to the fine print in many news accounts. There also is an incentive for the women to lie and say they are underage. As noted on this Blog before, in the eyes of Texas CPS if you’re a 17-year-old mother you’re considered a victim and your children can stay with you, if you’re 18 you’re an abuser and your children are consigned to foster care on their own.

But, as I said, this one doesn’t bother me as much because age isn’t the only reason to be concerned about the fate of some of the women. If a woman of any age is coerced into a “spiritual marriage” or a legal marriage, or if a woman or any age, married or not, is forced to have sex, that’s rape. That’s why some form of intervention was necessary in this case, and that’s why it’s quite possible that some of the children needed to be taken from the ranch, though not from their mothers.

But there have been other claims from CPS that are more problematic.

Remember the one about some kind of document concerning cyanide, obviously offered up to evoke images of Jonestown? Early on, a spokesman for Texas’ own Department of Public Safety told the Deseret News "Those were simply pages from a first-aid book, nothing more."

And then, just as people were wondering why, if the issue is abuse of teenage girls, younger children had to be taken, CPS conveniently tells us that 41 of the children, including some young children, at some pint in their lives, had broken bones. Only in the fine print is it noted that this determination was made without benefit of, say, x-rays.

More important, this time, two newspapers added some useful context. One was, of course, the Salt Lake Tribune:

A broken bone does not automatically indicate a child has been abused, child abuse experts said. The context of the injury is considered.
"A lot of it would depend on the age of the kid," said Julie Bradshaw, director of the Center for Safe and Healthy Families at Primary Children's Medical Center. "We would be much more concerned about broken bones in a child not yet walking than in an older child."
[Texas CPS] did not provide a breakdown of ages of children who have had broken bones.

The Tribune also noted the allegation by the FLDS that one child broke her arm while in Texas CPS custody.

And this time, a Texas newspaper did some checking as well. This is from the Austin American-Statesman:

Dr. David Teuscher, a Beaumont orthopedic surgeon, said that 41 of 464 children with a fractured bone "could have been the elementary school around the corner."
"It is really not an extremely high number," he said. "We see children who all the time who do crazy things and break their bones."

But these stories were the exceptions. When the three major broadcast networks reported the broken bones story on their evening news programs, only NBC added the context that some medical experts don’t consider the proportion of children who allegedly had broken bones to be unusually high.

In fact, in any community of 464 children and their parents, there probably are some child abusers. It may turn out that some of the broken bones were not accidents. But that doesn’t justify the wholesale confiscation of the children.

All of this comes on top of something I mentioned when this case began: the general tendency of child welfare agencies to cry wolf. As I noted then, the classic example is the rash of prosecutions over alleged mass molestation of children in day care centers in the 1980s, the most notorious being the McMartin Preschool. Almost every conviction everywhere in the country ultimately was overturned – but not until enormous harm was done to the children.

And just as one of the worst problems with the day care child abuse witch-hunt of the 1980s is that it undermined the credibility of real victims, here, too, there is a danger that Texas CPS’ broad brush and wild claims could wind up undermining the credibility of women and children at the ranch who really may have been maltreated. That, after all, is the problem with crying wolf.

So by all means, Texas CPS, keep on talking. But that doesn’t mean we have to believe every word you say.