Thursday, August 13, 2009

Los Angeles: The view in the funhouse mirror

Of all the huge metropolitan area child welfare systems in America, one of those that can afford a foster care panic the least is the one in Los Angeles County. Among systems in America's largest cities, only Philadelphia takes away children at a higher rate – and the rate of removal in Philadelphia long has been, quite simply, insane. (For an excellent critique of that system, and how the Philadelphia Inquirer made it worse, see this critique in the alternative weekly Citypaper.)

But a foster care panic almost certainly is what Los Angeles has got right now. That's partly because of miserable political leadership in that county and partly because, as in so much of the country, instead of making child welfare systems truly transparent, laws and policies have created the equivalent of viewing them through a funhouse mirror.

In Los Angeles, it began when the state of California changed state law to allow more disclosure of records in child abuse cases. But not all cases of alleged child maltreatment – only in cases resulting in child deaths.

So the Los Angeles Times promptly did exactly what a good newspaper should do: They filed a public records request, got the files and reported the results last April. They did it with none of the sneer and swagger that accompanied the Inquirer's efforts.

But certain things are inevitable whenever a newspaper rediscovers the fact that children known-to-the-system sometimes die. First, politicians try to take advantage of the situation – and that has long been the bane of Los Angeles child welfare to a greater degree than anyplace else in the country (yes, even worse than Washington, D.C.), something I'll discuss in a future post to this blog.

Then, parents immediately come forward and flood the reporters with calls and e-mails talking about how their children were wrongfully taken, and how those stories should be told, too. But that tends not to happen for several reasons.

1. Having spent weeks or months reading every horrible detail about the snuffing out of young innocent lives, often by sadistic brutes, reporters often are in no mood to hear anyone say "yes, but…"

2. The stories are often complicated and come pouring out in very long e-mails unbroken by paragraphs. Some of the people sending those e-mails are guilty as sin. Some are crazy. Some have been driven crazy by what has been done to their children by child welfare agencies. Some share responsibility for what happened to their children, but the children still would have been far better off had they never been taken away. And some are exactly the innocent victims they say they are. Some have documentation to support their stories, some don't. There are, in fact, ways around these problems, such as finding the better lawyers who represent these parents and sitting down with them - but it all takes time to sort out, time reporters may not want to invest, particularly in light of factor #1 above.

3. Unlike the fatality cases, the records in cases of alleged wrongful removal remain secret. So if a reporter pursues the story and calls the child welfare agency for comment, it's easy for the agency spokesperson to heave a theatrical sigh and tell 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." (I have a theory that every time a reporter accepts this veto of silence and abandons the story, somewhere, an agency flack gets his wings.)

Meanwhile, the initial reporting has made everyone more sensitive to the issue of child abuse deaths. So the next death of a child "known to the system" after the big story based on the newly-released records, is going to get more attention than it would otherwise; attention that such cases, in fact, always deserve, but may only receive every few years. So will the one after that and the one after that – and once you get to three, it's officially a "series" a "spate" or a "pattern."

That, too, has happened in Los Angeles in recent weeks. It doesn't matter that the actual rate of such deaths in Los Angeles has remained about the same over the past three years – between 12 and 14, in a city with more than 3.2 million residents under age 18. (And, sadly, three such cases since April is pretty typical for Los Angeles as well.) What matters is: Now everyone is paying attention again.

So it's no wonder that right now most people in Los Angeles probably think that the biggest mistake the city's Department of Children and Family Services makes, if not the only mistake, is being too slow to remove children from their parents and/or too quick to return them. One member of the county Board of Supervisors already has suggested as much – notwithstanding the fact that the number of children torn from their families in Los Angeles County in 2008 was 23 percent higher than the number five years earlier and notwithstanding the fact that, as noted above, Los Angeles already takes away proportionately more children than other big metropolitan area. Another supervisor is promising that "there are heads that will roll."

So of course every frontline worker has gotten the message:

They can take away hundreds of children needlessly, stash them in foster care, bounce them from foster home to foster home, probably expose at least one-third of them to abuse in foster care itself, let them emerge years later unable to love or trust anyone, and leave four out of five of them unable to do well as adults – but the caseworker who made that initial removal will suffer no consequence.
(Even if one of those children dies in foster care, odds are that will be deemed some other worker's fault, not the fault of the one who made the initial removal.) But let one child die in his own home and, as the County Supervisor promised: Heads will roll.

And that means you can bet the Los Angeles County Foster Care Panic of 2009 already is underway.

The foster care panic will do enormous harm to the children needlessly taken. But the harm won't end there. Los Angeles is notorious for the high caseloads carried by frontline workers. The foster-care panic will only make those caseloads even higher. So that increases the chances of more bad decisions in all directions. Even as more children are needlessly taken more children in real danger will be overlooked. Very little can be learned about systems as a whole based on fatality cases, but this much we do know: Foster care panics almost always are followed by increases in child abuse deaths. (For details, see NCCPR Issue Paper #2).

And this time, it happened largely because California lawmakers opted for the equivalent of showing Californians their local child welfare agencies reflected in a funhouse mirror.

Instead of total transparency, in which all court hearings would be open and there would be a rebuttable presumption of open records in every case, the public still is denied the chance to see how often children are torn from their families when poverty is confused with "neglect." They can't see the damage to children taken from everyone they know and love only to be abused – but not to death – in foster care. They get only the distorted view that comes from being allowed to see only one small slice of system instead of seeing it whole. (For a rare and particularly well-written exception, see this example from the Times.)

And sadly, too often, when editorial writers and columnists crusade for openness, the funhouse mirror is all they even ask for. Across the country, there is surprisingly little demand to open court hearings in states like California where they remain closed. And journalists often demand opening of records only in fatality cases instead of every case, as though seeing everything would be too much to bear – or complicate what seemed to be a simple straightforward story with a simple moral: take away more kids.

In Los Angeles, it looks like the Board of Supervisors is going to make everything worse by demanding an investigation – but only of the recent fatality cases. That will only increase the distortion in the funhouse mirror. Of course, if you only look at cases in which children died in their own homes, the "solutions" will revolve around demanding that children be taken more easily and returned only with more difficulty. But in reality, that will further overload the system and only increase the chances of more deaths, even as it destroys the psyches of untold other children through needless foster care.

The solution, however, is not to investigate less. The solution is to investigate more.

Short term, any investigation of recent deaths should be expanded to include a sample of cases in which families allege their children were wrongfully removed.

Long term, there should be a mechanism for an annual investigation of a statistically-significant random sample of cases. The only way to find out DCFS' typical failings – and come up with real solutions – is to examine typical cases. That's why lawyers commission just this sort of "casereading" when they bring class-action suits against child welfare systems - it's the only evidence that can pass muster in a court of law.

But most important, there should be no "filter" no "expert panel" or anything else standing between us and what went wrong in any case. That's why California law should be changed to open court hearings and create a rebuttable presumption of open records in every case.

Tomorrow on this blog: An example of the kind of typical case one rarely hears about in L.A., or elsewhere. And on Monday: The urgent need to curb the B.S. in L.A.