Wednesday, June 10, 2009

UPDATED JUNE 11: Texas: Where the stereotypes die hard

UPDATE: Thank you to the Dallas Morning News. While I disagree with some of how that paper's story today characterized what the bill, SB 1440, would do as compared with current law, the paper made a point of not stereotyping opponents ideologically.

I suppose if a newspaper in Texas calls your group "conservative" you should just shut up and let them believe it. But an old-fashioned belief in at least trying to be accurate, something carried over from my days as a reporter, compels me to set the record straight. The attempt to lump everyone opposing a dreadful bill now on the desk of Texas Gov. Rick Perry into the same ideological camp was not even the worst stereotype in the story. Also: The story misrepresents current law.

The story ran in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram today. It's about a bill I wrote about on this blog a few days ago, the one that would legalize the illegal behavior of Texas CPS in the FLDS raid and another case in that state.

The story begins this way:

A coalition of conservative and libertarian groups is urging Gov. Rick Perry to veto a bill that would make it easier for Child Protective Services to remove children from a home while investigating possible abuse.

That's stereotype number one. The story goes on to quote a conservative obligingly fulfilling stereotype number two by complaining that the bill undermines "parental rights."

In the most literal sense, both statements are true. What the reporter leaves out is that there are a whole lot of groups like NCCPR – filled with lifelong liberals – who think bills like this stink because they undermine children's rights.

Children have a right not to be traumatized by police and CPS workers based on no more than an anonymous call. Children have a right not to be stripsearched for no reason. And, most of all, children have a right not to be torn from everyone they know and love and exposed to the emotional trauma, and serious risk of physical or sexual abuse in foster care, based on no more than a caseworker's guess.

All this is why, when I wrote about the injustice of the FLDS raid for the website of a national magazine, it was for The Nation, not, say The Weekly Standard.

Similarly, there is nothing right-wing about the Parent Guidance Center, the excellent grassroots organization in Texas that has been among the leaders in opposing this bill.

Only at the very end of the story does the reporter concede that, well, yes, a blogger at the liberal Daily Kos said Perry should veto the bill – and so did Scott Henson of the excellent, and decidedly left-leaning Texas criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast. But the bottom of the story is the traditional resting place for facts that contradict a reporter's pre-conceived notions.

Much higher in the story, there is this grossly-misleading description of the bill:

If the bill became law, a judge would be able to grant CPS a court order similar to a criminal search warrant, allowing a CPS worker to immediately enter the home and, if necessary, remove the child and secure medical and mental-health records as part of an investigation. It would be done without notifying the parent in advance.

That's wrong in what it says and wrong in what it implies. The bill would not create a procedure requiring an order "similar to a criminal search warrant." On the contrary, it would eviscerate an existing procedure that, even now, requires less than is needed in a criminal case.

Current law already allows CPS "to immediately enter the home and, if necessary, remove the child and secure medical and mental-health records as part of an investigation … without notifying the parent in advance." All the worker has to do is tell a judge a child is at imminent risk of maltreatment – and under some circumstances the worker doesn't need to go to a judge at all. The worker need offer only what amounts to a smidgen of evidence.

As I wrote in my previous post on this issue:

The reason for [the "imminent risk" standard] should be obvious. If the only alleged problem is that children face a threat that is not imminent, then there is time to hold a hearing before exposing children to the trauma of being questioned, stirpsearched, and often, torn away from everyone they know and love. In the FLDS case, for example, some of the allegations boiled down to the claim that very young children might be abused when they reached puberty. Now granted, there are a lot of delays in juvenile court – but ten years also usually is enough time to schedule a hearing.

What the new law does is lower the required amount of evidence to about one tenth of a smidgen. And no longer would there be a requirement that the child be in imminent danger before allowing a CPS raid without a hearing first.

When it comes to child welfare, both left and right have a lot to account for. Too many conservatives think family values are a middle-class entitlement only – like Newt Gingrich who wants to throw poor people's children into orphanages. And too many of my fellow liberals forget everything they claim to believe about civil liberties as soon as somebody whispers the words "child abuse" in their ears. So the fact that opponents of this bill include liberals and conservatives, advocates of children's rights and advocates of parents' rights is a good step in the right direction.