Thursday, May 7, 2009

The last FLDS child in foster care is NOT leaving foster care

News organization websites across Texas carried stories today that began much like this one:

"The last child remaining in state custody as a result of the state's raid last year on a West Texas ranch owned by a polygamist sect will soon leave foster care, state officials said today."

But none of the stories was true.

Yes, the daughter of FLDS member Barbara Jessop would be allowed to move in with a relative. But Texas CPS and the courts still are overseeing the case. They decide where the child will live, when she can be visited and whether she will return home. And that means she's still in foster care. It's just foster care with a relative, instead of foster care with a stranger. Placements with relatives almost always are a better option than "stranger care" – but it's still foster care.

States often try to fudge this. They'll describe kinship care as a way to "avoid foster care" or, in this case, possibly claim a child is "leaving foster care" when she simply is being transferred to a different kind of foster care. They do this so they can make the number of children they've taken from their families, and the number they're holding in foster care, look lower than it really is. But the federal government is clear on this: If a child is taken away at the behest of CPS and/or the courts, and can't return home without their permission, it's foster care.

This afternoon, I pointed this out in an e-mail to NCCPR's list of reporters who have been following the FLDS case. I got two strikingly different responses.

Brooke Adams of the Salt Lake Tribune, who has been beating the you-know-what out of the entire Texas press corps in its own backyard on the FLDS story from day one, sent a gracious note, and changed the wording of her story.

The reporter who wrote the lead quoted above, whom I won't name because there's no reason to single her out, sent a very different response. She wrote:

"[M]y blog item clearly says she is being placed with a relative and that the state will continue to monitor her progress, so I don't think that leaves any confusion about what is happening."

Right. It just creates confusion over whether the child is in foster care or not. And if, in fact, CPS claimed the child was "will soon leave foster care" then the story accepts what would be a blatant falsehood as fact.

Now, as journalistic crimes go, accepting as fact the claim that kinship care is not foster care is a misdemeanor. It wouldn't even be worth bringing up here except for the fact that the hyper-defensive response perfectly illustrates Edward R. Murrow's comment that "the press doesn't have a thin skin, it has no skin." I think that kind of defensiveness, more than the initial error, and the inability to "talk back" to a newspaper in any meaningful way most of the time, is one reason there is so much distrust of the news media.