Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Loch Ness Monster effect

LOS ANGELES – Here's what caseworkers for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services actually knew about the case of four-year-old Lars Sanchez, according to a story in today's Los Angeles Times:

Lars' mother, Yolanda Tijerina, showed up outside her son's preschool one day and began screaming “at no one in particular.”

"I think you killed my son!" shouted Tijerina. ... "I think you killed my son. I have panic attacks."

The principal called the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. DCFS learned that the boy's grandmother said the mother had “episodes” and his adult sister said she believed the boy was in danger. According to the Times, citing sources close to the case, DCFS also

called in evaluators from the county Department of Mental Health to do an assessment of the mother, and the findings persuaded them that she was not a threat. That exam failed to diagnose the gravity of Tijerina's illness ...

In addition, the grandmother was at the home often and may have been living there.

According to the Times, based on the principal's report, the mental health evaluation and, apparently, their own observations and investigation

In the end, the social workers found that Tijerina often spoke nonsensically. They found that her "emotional stability, developmental status or cognitive deficiency impairs her current ability to supervise, protect or care for the child."

But they said this risk could be addressed through three months of informal monitoring by a neighborhood resource center and observation by family members and neighbors, according to county documents.
... Also counting in favor of the mother was the fact that she had been cooperative during the child-abuse investigation.

There was more information that might have swayed the investigators, but I'm only including what the story indicates DCFS actually knew when the decision was made.

I might well argue that these facts called for Intensive Family Preservation Services (described in full in NCCPR Issue Papers 10 and 11 at www.nccpr.org ) – in which someone would be present in the home long enough – sometimes several hours a day - to get a better sense of the danger to the child.

But there is nothing outlandish in deciding not to “take the child and run” in this fact scenario
--not without hindsight and the additional information that DCFS didn't have when the decision was made.

Had nothing gone wrong, I wouldn't have been reading this story on the front page of the Times on my way in from LAX this afternoon.

In fact, nine months later, Lars' mother killed the boy, in a particularly gruesome way. (And, once again, a member of the county Board of Supervisors was ready to throw a little gasoline on the fire.)

As a result, out of the tens of thousands of cases L.A. DCFS handles every year, this is one of the very few in which reporters can see the case file.

Since, once again, the agency is reflected through a funhouse mirror, it's no wonder the story includes this claim:

The documents, released by the county Department of Children and Family Services under a 2008 disclosure law, show in chilling detail how even dramatic evidence of a mother's illness was not considered sufficient grounds for removing a child from her care.

The problem with that statement is it's missing three words: in this case.

Because if one saw the system – regularly – in full; if there were equal access to all cases, one would see that over and over again, children tare taken for far, far less.

Just look at the case described in this previous post to the Blog, the post called "The everyday horrors of American child welfare").

Indeed, it is easy to imagine a very similar set of circumstances to those described in the Times today leading to wrongful removal – and, indeed, across the country it has:

Once again, the scene is a school and a mother is screaming. This time she's perfectly sane – but she's furious over the failure of the school to provide the right kind of special education for her son.
The principal isn't about to be spoken to that way, so she calls CPS.

Unfortunately, unlike Yolanda Tijerina, who apparently knew how to play the game – as the Times story says: “Also counting in favor of the mother was the fact that she had been cooperative during the child-abuse investigation” our hypothetical mother is still fuming when CPS arrives and tells off the caseworker, too.

In such a situation, you can be sure that child would have been taken away on the spot.
It was a Los Angeles attorney who first called this “flunking the attitude test.”

Indeed, consider another real case from Los Angeles, also discussed in a previous post to this Blog. (and available, if the direct link in that previous post doesn't work, by going here and then clicking on the link at the bottom of the middle column.)

Though it's not mentioned in this particular story, a cover story about this case in the now-defunct New Times Los Angeles makes clear that a key factor in the removal of the child was the fact that the mother didn't know how to grovel before a DCFS worker.

But as far as I know, this case, which ultimately led to the child dying in foster care, never made the front page of the Times or the Los Angeles Daily News. The other case, involving the father who lost his children solely for lack of housing, never made it into either paper at all.

So you get a system reflected in the equivalent of a funhouse mirror. Or, to put it another way, you get The Loch Ness Monster effect.

We've all seen those blurry photos of something that looks like a long neck sticking out of the water that purport to show the Loch Ness Monster. Everything else is hidden under the Loch, so it's easy to confuse what we think we see with the entire beast.

Similarly, if the only time the curtain of confidentiality parts in child welfare is when a child “known to the system” dies, it's no wonder people assume the only mistake the system makes is to leave children in dangerous homes.

Child welfare systems can't be fixed until people know how they really work and how they really fail. But that can't happen if the overwhelming majority of what they do, right and wrong, remains hidden. That's why it's so urgent to open all court hearings and create a rebuttable presumption of open records in all cases. That's why it's so urgent to drain the Loch – so everyone can see exactly what the creature looks like.

P.S.: Almost forgot: God only knows what kind of knee-jerk response the Board of Supervisors will come up with to this story, but is it too much to ask that at least they don't scare thousands of people away from voluntarily seeking help for mental health problems? Yes, probably it is.