Saturday, October 24, 2009

Child abuse report: Every fact matters

The "research director" of the group known as Every Child Matters now admits they screwed up big time in their comparison of state child welfare spending, particularly concerning the State of Maine. In fact, their entire comparison of how much of your tax money went to child welfare agencies is highly suspect.
Maine was singled out as allegedly being among the five states that spent the least on protecting children – this in the context of a report that essentially equated spending big bucks with caring about kids and spending less as not caring if they die.

According to the Kennebec Journal, the newspaper in, Augusta, Maine's capital:

Stephen Clermont, research director at Every Child Matters, conceded in an interview Wednesday that the 2004 data for Maine turned out to be outdated and the numbers were underreported; information from at least 2006 was available -- unbeknownst to the group -- indicating that Maine spent at least $121 million on child-welfare services, at a per-capita rate of $92.69, he said.

But this still leaves a few questions unanswered:

The 2006 data have been readily available online for nearly a year. How could a group with ECM's huge budget have missed it?

ECM doesn't seem to have gone to the original source even for its old data, relying instead on a database compiled by the Child Welfare League of America. The database is very convenient, but not always up-to-date.

NCCPR issued a child welfare spending comparison, using the 2006 data, on February 20, 2009. It's not on our website, but available on request. Those who request it will see that we went to great lengths to explain the limits of the data – and to note where only partial data were available. CWLA's 2004 chart doesn't note this – and that's why ECM wound up grossly understating Maine's spending.

And speaking of spending, ECM spends three times more just on printing than NCCPR's entire annual budget (if we're The Prius of Child Advocacy, think of them as the Hummer). And I'd love to know how much they paid GYMR, the slick Washington PR firm they worked with on this report. Couldn't they have spent a little more on research?

Maine is not the only state for which those 2004 data are incomplete. Data are missing for 12 other states, and – surprise! – three of those states also are among the five that ECM alleges spend the least on child welfare.

ECM's President, Michael Petit, reportedly promised state child welfare officials that he would correct any errors in the data. But even though ECM admits it knew of its screw-up by Oct. 21, the very day the report officially was released (though well after it had been sent to journalists), as of 10:30am Oct. 24, [UPDATE: Make that, as of 11:16am Oct. 26], the misinformation about Maine remains in the report and the press release – with no correction. [UPDATE: it finally was corrected between 11:16am Oct. 26 and 5:00pm Oct. 28, but the new version also contains errors]. And the 2004 data have not been replaced with the 2006 data. Why not? Aren't they worried that well-meaning backers of the organization who fill in the blanks on their generic Astroturf op ed template and claim it as their own are going to look like idiots when they're blamed for using old, and perhaps incorrect, data?

And when what was originally an honest mistake goes uncorrected, can it still be described as honest?

The rankings of states appear to be at the heart of the ECM/GYMR strategy – every locally-written story I've found leads with the state's alleged rank on one indicator or another, usually either spending or child abuse fatalities. Getting these data wrong can do enormous damage, particularly in a state like Maine which has become a national leader in child welfare. But if anyone presses ECM on this, you can bet they'll fall back on the "bait and switch" described in a previous post to this Blog. They'll feign high dudgeon and say something like: "How dare anyone quibble about numbers when children are dying." But these aren't just numbers, these are facts. And you can't come up with life-saving answers if you don't get your facts right. Every child won't matter until every fact matters.

As noted in our previous post, ECM also purported to compare rates of child abuse fatalities, even though no honest comparison of fatality rates among states is possible.

So now we know that, actually, three things are certain in life: death, taxes, and the fact that Every Child Matters will misrepresent both to advance its ideological agenda.