Monday, October 19, 2009

Covering foster care and family preservation: The Los Angeles Times gets a second chance

The Los Angeles Times is the only newspaper I know of where the reporter who once had the child welfare beat now has the media beat.

James Rainey is a good, conscientious reporter. Like most reporters who have ever covered child welfare, he wanted to leave the system better than he found it. And like most such reporters, he didn't. With child welfare back in the news in Los Angeles, he used his column Friday to ask why. But he missed the real answers. Some of those answers have to do with what he wrote when he had the child welfare beat – and how he wrote it.

Rainey begins his column by recalling his stories about Lance Helms, who was beaten to death in 1995 after being returned to "his violent, drug-plagued father." The case set off a media and political firestorm. Writes Rainey:

Little I've written in nearly 30 years of newspapering has generated as much response as that 1995 story. A picture of the adorable, sandy-haired toddler appeared on Page 1, along with the description of how he'd been hit so hard his internal organs burst. The phone calls and mail arrived in waves. Eventually, the state Legislature passed reforms. It all seemed so important then. It all seems so inadequate now.
But Rainey leaves something out. The Lance Helms case also set off a huge foster-care panic in Los Angeles County, with disastrous consequences. Who says so? Andrew Bridge, a former foster child, author of the searing memoir Hope's Boy, (Hyperion: 2008) and founder and first director of the Alliance for Children's Rights – a group Rainey praises in his column.

Here's what Bridge wrote about the Helms case two years ago, in an op ed column for The New York Times:

"…officials in Los Angeles redoubled training, took over individual cases and hired frontline workers, then descended on communities to root out failing families. The system bloated to 70,000 children under the county's supervision. Officials soon discovered that taking children was easier than returning them. As a result, thousands of children languished in foster care for years."

(The column was written in a noble, but, unfortunately, unsuccessful effort to persuade New York City officials not to make the same mistakes.)

Rainey goes on to say that "I like to think I got to some of [the] deeper issues as I wrote about foster care over the next couple of years." To some extent, he did, including excellent reporting on abuses in group homes.

But his coverage was marked by a general disdain for birth families, generally reflected in sins of omission. Among all the James Rainey stories in NCCPR's database, which goes back to 1997, I can't find even one that focused on the impoverished birth parents caught up in typical cases, or even an interview with, say, a lawyer who regularly represents such parents. The written record suggests that for James Rainey, as for so many other reporters on the child welfare beat, birth parents were, almost literally, too sub-human to talk to. And it's easy to write off people you've never met as, in Rainey's words, "incompetent" and "deadbeats."

Even grandparents tended to turn up only as people too suspect to be allowed to adopt their own grandchildren.

And that helps explain Rainey's last big L.A. child welfare story in 2000, a particularly damaging story I'll discuss in a moment.

Family preservation gets "swiftboated"

Rainey certainly was not alone. Birth-parent bashing reached its height from about 1993 to 2001.

Those who believe the answer to every child welfare problem can be boiled down to "take the child and run" masterfully exploited tragedies like the Helms case in Los Angeles and Joseph Wallace in Chicago to spread two Big Lies about child welfare: that family preservation made children less safe and, in a truly Orwellian twist, that family preservation, a movement created to keep children out of foster care, was prolonging foster care as agencies supposedly lavished services on rotten parents, supposedly giving them chance after chance to "clean up their acts."

In fact, for the overwhelming majority of children, family preservation is safer than foster care. The overwhelming majority of parents are nothing like Lance Helms' father; many have "acts" that need no cleansing at all. And children languished in foster care then for the same reason they languish in foster care now: not because agencies are lavishing help on families, but because they give little or no real help to families. The children are filed away in foster care and forgotten as overwhelmed workers rush on to the next case. (For details about these myths and how they compare with reality see our Child Welfare Timeline.)

During the 1990s, family preservation was "swiftboated" – and, at the time, the family preservation movement reacted with all the speed and skill of the 2004 John Kerry campaign. One of the reasons NCCPR exists is to try to make sure that never happens again.

Journalists celebrate a bad law

The smears culminated in the passage of the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA). The real impact of ASFA in most of the country was to increase the number of children torn from their parents and to create a generation of legal orphans with no ties to birth parents and little chance of adoption either, as terminations of parental rights far outpaced the actual increase in adoptions.

But in the early years after passage, ASFA and similar state laws were greeted with jubilation by many journalists.

Reporters waxed rhapsodic over ASFA and its state counterparts – California's is the most draconian. At last, the journalists insisted, children would be freed from those sadists, brutes, and incompetents and they'd all live happily-ever-after in adoptive homes! The journalists almost seemed to wish a pox on deadbeat parents who wouldn't be getting any more of those undeserved "chances."

Rainey's story, published May 8, 2000, was typical. Here's the lead:

Adoptions of foster children have jumped nearly 50% in California over two years, mirroring a national trend in which states are moving more rapidly to find permanent new homes for the offspring of the most troubled parents.

The speedup creates stable homes for thousands of children who had been trapped in abusive and neglectful families, experts said. It also should cut taxpayer costs by reducing the number of social workers, lawyers and judges needed to track children on California's foster care rolls, the nation's largest. …

"I think there's a substantial and even a cultural change within child welfare," said Jorja Prover, a professor of social welfare at UCLA who trains Los Angeles County social workers. "Instead of keeping kids languishing in foster care and fighting this sometimes losing battle of family reunification, people are thinking in terms of finding permanent homes." …

Having accepted as fact the myth that all children whose parents are taken from them forever were abused and neglected, the story goes on to accept as fact the myth about lavishing help on birth families:

"Some agencies used to be content to work with a [troubled] birth family for two or three or four years, before they would finally throw in the towel" and place a child for adoption, said Rich Hemstreet, chief of the Adoptions Policy Bureau for the state Department of Social Services …

And the myth that adoption is the all-purpose answer:

The public face of child welfare adoptions is a joyous one. On occasional weekend "adoption days" at the Edmund G. Edelman Children's Court in Monterey Park, hundreds of groomed and coiffed young people are joined to new families in ebullient festivities. Social workers, lawyers and judges celebrate the occasions as a respite from the court's often grim work of protecting children from their own parents.
Needless to say, this celebration of adoption-as-panacea contained no mention of legal orphans, or of adoption disruption, when children are rushed into quick-and-dirty, slipshod placements and the adoptive parents change their minds. The story simply assumed that, in the words of the director of the California Department of Social Services at the time "every one of those kids has a permanent home."

To the extent that the new laws caused "some pain," the story said, it was only to those incompetent parents. There was no mention of all the children who never should have been caught up in the termination madness in the first place. In California, that was left to Metroactive, the alternative weekly in San Jose, two months later.

No dissent allowed

Rainey's story went on that way for 1,495 words. And not one of those words was a word of dissent. He spoke to no birth parents, no lawyers who represented them in court, no civil rights groups who might have talked about what ASFA was doing to minority communities, no anti-poverty groups who might have spoken of the confusion of poverty with neglect.

But now, even as James Rainey of the L.A. Times media beat is lamenting the fact that things don't seem to have changed, none of those ideas is on his list of suggestions for his successors.

Instead, he writes of "an army of incompetent parents overwhelming a small rank of protectors." Even when he now says families should get lots of services, raising the possibility he may be reconsidering his former view, he still stigmatizes the parents.

"What hasn't changed since I left the child welfare beat?" Rainey wrote in his column Friday. His first answer:

The need to provide as many services as possible -- drug rehab, parenting classes, day care and the like -- to troubled families to help them keep children at home. It's tempting to want to wish a pox on deadbeat parents, but evidence shows it's cheaper, and works better, to give them a hand. The alternative often is the long-term costs and abysmal outcomes that come with foster homes and, often, the probation camps and prisons that follow."

Apparently, they weren't lavishing all that help on families a decade ago after all. But even as Rainey suggests services would be a good idea, the stereotype – the view of all birth parents as incompetents or deadbeats - something less than human - remains.

The column continues:

Trish Ploehn, director of the family services department, tells me an arrangement with federal officials has allowed more money to be spent on such services.

Actually, the biggest underreported child welfare story in Los Angeles may be the fact that this arrangement – a waiver from federal funding rules - freed up far less money than it should have. While Florida is beginning to transform its once abysmal system using the same kind of waiver, L.A. is making far less progress and squandering a similar opportunity.

Rainey continues:

The 14 kids in the system who died of abuse or neglect last year was higher than any of us should accept. But when the county was pulling many more children from homes a decade ago, foster care deaths peaked at 20 in one year.

But back when Rainey was writing about the joys of taking more children and rushing to termination of parental rights, we already knew that this approach does not reduce child abuse deaths. Abundant data were available from Illinois, which had gone through one of the nation's worst foster-care panics from 1993 through 1998 – and saw child abuse fatalities increase. In addition, using more reliable measures of safety than fatalities, Los Angeles County does better than other California counties which take, proportionately, even more children.

In fact, there has been some progress in making children safer since Rainey left the child welfare beat. But Los Angeles is regressing. Though the rate of removal is not as bad as when it was at its worst, it bottomed out in 2003 and has increased almost every year since. And Los Angeles takes away children at a much higher rate than many other big cities – most notably metropolitan Chicago, where the state reversed course after the panic, and independent court monitors say a decade-long emphasis on family preservation has improved child safety. (For details see our briefing material on Los Angeles County child welfare)

So L.A.'s record of improvement, however small, is in jeopardy as Los Angeles retreats from reform – a retreat probably accelerated in the wake of recent news stories, which probably have set off another foster care panic.

Breaking the cycle

But it's not too late to break the cycle. The reporters covering child welfare at the Times right now are doing a better job than most. While they haven't always asked the right questions, at least their coverage has been free of the cheap shots at family preservation that have characterized similar recent efforts at newspapers like The Philadelphia Inquirer.

But they're going to have to do some reporting that goes beyond anything on Rainey's own checklist.

They'll need to actually talk to birth parents – not just the ones caught up in the most horrific cases, but the ones trapped in the poverty-confused-with-neglect cases and all those "in-between" cases, in which the parents are neither saints nor deadbeats. With the emergence of a good new grassroots group of such parents, "DCFS – Give Us Back Our Children," that should get easier.

They'll need to talk to the lawyers who see the parade of injustice every day in juvenile court (since in California, courts are closed reporters can't see for themselves).

They'll need to consider a much wider range of solutions. One of their most recent stories dealt with a child with serious mental health problems placed with a great-grandmother who was simply too old to keep up with him. But, as is discussed on the excellent website,, the story asked only why the child wasn't taken out of the home – instead of asking why intensive help, like Wraparound, wasn't brought in. Indeed, a lawsuit settlement would appear to require it. When that suit was filed, it was the subject of a pretty good story – by James Rainey. (The legal director of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, one of the groups that brought the suit, is a member of NCCPR's Board of Directors.)

And they'll need to heed the warning from Andrew Bridge in that op ed column. Wrote Bridge:

In the glare of public scrutiny, officials too often respond with reforms that drive up the number of children taken from their families.

That doesn't have to happen. It depends on how much leadership is exerted by the child welfare agency – and how much context makes its way into the news coverage.

Tragic circumstances have given the journalists at the Los Angeles Times their own second chance. I hope they make the most of it.