Wednesday, December 2, 2009

UPDATED 10:20 PM: Florida foster care: Horrors! The Miami Herald cries wolf, while DCF takes the road less traveled

UPDATE, 10:20PM: Ah, Florida: where the bureaucrats are candid and the journalists are stonewalling.

The post below deals with a detailed point-by-point rebuttal issued by the Florida Department of Children and Families to a story in Sunday’s Miami HeraldThe Herald has published a follow-up story.   Three general sentences from the DCF rebuttal are included far down in the story.  When it comes to DCF's specifics refuting the Herald’s allegations, there is not one word.

And the Herald repeats misleading claims from the original story.  The follow-up boils down to “it’s our story and we’re sticking to it.”

In a previous post to this Blog, I said that the Miami
Herald relied on innuendo, data out of context and horror stories to stack the deck in what amounted to an editorial-disguised-as-a-news-story calling for screening out fewer calls to the Florida child abuse hotline.

I was wrong.

Turns out, the "horror stories" are out of context, too.

With swiftness and detail almost unheard-of from a child welfare agency, (people in every other state should be demanding the same from theirs) the Florida Department of Children and Families issued a point-by-point rebuttal and an overview from DCF Secretary George Sheldon. I've posted the memos on the NCCPR website.

Whether one agrees with how DCF handled the cases or not, one thing is overwhelmingly clear: The Miami
Herald failed to give readers the information they needed to make up their own minds. In every case, the full story is different from the impression left by the Herald.


Here are two examples:

What the Herald Reported:

Sept. 16,[2009] 2:02 p.m.: A Broward sheriff's deputy calls the Florida child-abuse hot line to report that a 4-year-old had been molested by a babysitter as the sitter's boyfriend videotaped the assault. A hot-line counselor declines to forward the report to an investigator.

What the Herald left out:

The allegation concerned an incident that occurred in 2005. The September 2009 information indicated that neither the babysitter nor the babysitter's boyfriend had any access to the child who was the victim of the molestation. There were actually two children who were the subject of concern. For the child who was the victim of the molestation, the call was taken on 9/16/2009 as a prevention referral to determine if the victim or the victim's family needed services. It was subsequently determined that the child was receiving appropriate therapy [for the molestation in 2005] and was being appropriately cared for after the report was subsequently opened on 10/9/2009.

In the same call on 9/16/2009, it was determined that the babysitter and boyfriend had a child. The concern was that if they had molested one child then their infant could be at risk. This case was properly opened and investigated. It was further determined that law enforcement had an open and ongoing investigation related to the perpetrators in this case.

What the Herald reported:

The hot line rejected a call from one of the agency's own child-abuse investigators: On Oct. 15, a state child protective investigator filed a report on behalf of an infant whose babysitters' own 4-month-old suffered ``significant head injuries.''

What the Herald left out:

Actually, the physical injuries had occurred to the child being babysat, not the babysitter's child. The concern in this case was that a babysitter was potentially involved in a case where a child was injured. Subsequently an investigation was opened to determine if the babysitter's own child was at risk of being harmed. It was determined the babysitter's child was not at risk and the babysitter was not determined to have caused the injury to the 4-month old. The original call regarding the babysitter's child was received at 5:37 p.m. on 10/15/2009 and the report was entered on 10/16 at 3:12 p.m.


More generally, the two rebuttal documents make clear that it is flat wrong to suggest, as the Herald did, that these cases and others cited got no response, or even that they got only a form letter. DCF offers considerable evidence to support Sheldon's claim that "…in every specific case cited in the article, except one where we previously acknowledged error, the cries for help were in fact heeded and the agency did respond. … None of the calls were "turned away," or "rejected" or "unheeded." In addition:

The rebuttal shows that DCF has an effective mechanism to "backstop" calls that become "prevention referrals" instead of full-scale investigations. If DCF workers at the district level disagree with the decision they can have the case "upgraded" to a full-scale investigation. In contrast, DCF workers have no power to "downgrade" a call passed on for investigation to a prevention referral. So if anything the imbalance in the system favors needless investigation.

Twenty-five percent of calls that are not accepted for full –scale investigation become prevention referrals. This means that not only does Florida accept calls for full-scale investigation at a rate that is roughly the national average, (something discussed in detail in a previous post) an additional 25 percent of calls get some kind of response from DCF.

All of the alleged horror stories come from just one county, Broward, where the county sheriff is responsible for child abuse investigations. As the Herald story itself notes, "For budget year 2008, Florida lawmakers reduced funding to the four sheriff's departments, including Broward, that conduct abuse investigations under contract with DCF by $2.9 million, or almost 6 percent. " That gives those departments a profound vested interest in hyping alleged failure to investigate child abuse.

If there's one thing that makes reporters roll their eyes when an agency responds to an unfavorable story it's when the agency says some version of: "we're already looking into that." But in this case, it happens to be true.

A committee whose charge includes reviewing the new hotline procedures and the adequacy of DCF's response to prevention referrals was announced publicly on October 23. Sheldon even included on the committee people likely to support the Herald position – including at least one member of what I have come to call the "Kearney DCF-in-exile" – meaning people I believe prefer something closer to the disastrous take-the-child-and-run approach of former DCF Secretary Kathleen Kearney. (Unfortunately, Sheldon left out the two most important people for any such group: A current or former foster child and a parent who lost her or his children to foster care).


I hope the rebuttal will stop any foster-care panic before it starts. But even if it does, there is another casualty in all this: the credibility of The Miami
Herald, and that hurts everyone who cares about Florida's vulnerable children.

For a decade the Herald led the state in coverage of child welfare. That is largely because of Carol Marbin Miller, the reporter who wrote the hotline story. She is indefatigable, as good at working sources as she is at poring over documents. At one point a competing paper had five reporters trying to keep up with her, and they couldn't. If fewer Florida foster children wind up being doped up on psychiatric medication in the future, the person most responsible will be Carol Marbin Miller (followed, ironically, by the DCF leaders whose work she trashed on Sunday).

But this time, she overreached. She let her righteous indignation get the better of her. This time, and in an earlier hotline story I'll discuss in a future post, the Herald cried wolf.

That hurts everyone. Every government agency needs an aggressive watchdog. But once you cry wolf, it's hard to get the credibility back – readers may even start to mentally "screen out" the newspaper's assertions.

There also is a failing in DCF's rebuttal documents. It is Sheldon's penchant for – believe it or not – taking too much blame. Once again, he says DCF was wrong to screen out reports in the case of Bryce Barros a two-year-old (not one-year-old as the Herald reported) who subsequently died.

Sheldon is mistaken. it's the policy that requires accepting anything sent by a judge, no matter how flimsy, that is wrong. This case was the subject of an earlier Herald story. I plan to discuss the case, and how the Herald stacked the deck in that story too, on this Blog tomorrow or early next week.


Bottom line: Sheldon's responses to the Herald actually show that DCF is not doing enough to screen out false reports and trivial cases. And another paragraph in his overview memorandum also shows there has not yet been enough progress. Sheldon writes:

There may be a misconception that the Department is hesitant to remove children from unsafe homes. That is not the case. In November 2007 we removed 1,148 children. In October 2009, we removed 1,159 children. Our approach does not take abuse less seriously. Our success is in uniting children with a permanent family – their own whenever possible, or with adoptive homes or permanent guardianships if reunification is not possible.

That is worrisome. Though Florida takes away fewer children than it used to – and an independent outside evaluation finds it's been done without compromising safety – the most recent data available for all states, from 2008, shows that the rate of removal in Florida still is above the national average and significantly above the rate in systems that are, relatively speaking, models for keeping children safe. Success is not just giving children back quickly and safely after they've been taken. The bigger success is allowing them to remain safely in their own homes, without ever having their lives disrupted at all.

And DCF still lets governors politicize child welfare, as in the case of Rifqa Bary.

But at least Florida now is moving in the right direction. And that's never easy.

At the end of his letter, Sheldon notes how much still needs to be done, declaring that "we have miles to go before we sleep." The line is, of course, from a poem by Robert Frost. But there's another Frost poem that is at least as appropriate. It's the one that ends:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

For nearly a decade, the Florida Department of Children and Families trod the well-worn path of take-the-child-and-run. It made Florida a national symbol of child welfare failure. Now, DCF is taking the road less traveled. If DCF stays on that road, for the state's vulnerable children, it will make all the difference.