Monday, February 8, 2010

Foster care in L.A.: The LA Times takes the wrong page from the NY Times playbook

If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, what's the last refuge of the child welfare reporter who's gone beyond the facts? Declare the existence of a "series" of child abuse deaths, where no such series exists.

The deaths exist of course, and each is the worst possible tragedy. But the series exists only in the mind of the journalist. Such non-existent "series" are a function of the fact that journalistic interest in child abuse deaths is prone to rise and fall much more sharply, and much more capriciously, than the actual fatalities.

Reasons for inventing a series of deaths vary. In the case of The New York Times it was one of the very rare cases where ideology came into play – the reporter on the child welfare beat at the time strongly sympathized with the city's powerful neoconservatives. They dominated policy during the Giuliani administration – and they hated the city's successful efforts to keep families together. So, as noted previously on this Blog, toward the end of 2005 the reporter turned the tragically-typical run of child abuse deaths in New York City into an alleged "series" and blamed the deaths on efforts to keep families together.


It was a "series," the reporter would explain later "but not statistically." As a result, everyone was primed to scapegoat family preservation when Nixzmary Brown died in January, 2006. The city is still feeling the effects today, with entries into care up more than 50 percent since Nixzmary died (but even so, New York City still takes proportionately fewer children than Los Angeles.)

And that brings me to Friday's Los Angeles Times follow-up to Thursday's story discussed in several posts to this Blog. The stories claimed that the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, Trish Ploehn, had "suspended a long-standing effort to reduce the number of children in foster homes."

In the follow up, reporter Garrett Therolf declares that while "the county had focused on family preservation" up to now,

a series of child deaths last year among children left in – or returned to – unsafe homes jolted Ploehn's department. "These cases had a very deep effect," Ploehn said last week. [Emphasis added.]

But once again, there is no series – unless of course, the Times means "a series – but not statistically."

Yes, deaths of children known-to-the-system in Los Angeles County went up to 17 in 2009, from 14 the previous year – but, as Ploehn, the competing Los Angeles Daily News, and even the Times' own media critic (and former child welfare reporter) James Rainey all have pointed out, the number was even higher back when the county was taking away even more children and had vastly more children in foster care. And given how subjective the declaration that a death is due to maltreatment can be (for example, was a drowning an accident or neglect?) the 2009 figure may be too high, or the 2008 figure may be too low.

But don't take my word for it, even Deanne Tilton Durfee, the Queen of Child Abuse Fatality Review, the L.A.-based national expert who probably is quoted more than any other national expert, "agreed the increase in deaths is not a 'significant increase in the larger spectrum of things,'" according to the Daily News.

And, let's not forget that new study from the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which found that taking away more children does nothing to reduce child abuse deaths.

Yet there's the LA Times, just like The New York Times, claiming a series where none exists and implying that it was caused by family preservation. This time it's not a matter of ideology. And, as is discussed at the end of this post, Garrett Therolf is a much better reporter than the one who invented the non-statistical series in New York. He's done some outstanding reporting on this issue. And when it comes to the kind of stories that set off "foster-care panics," huge spikes in removals of children, there's a lot worse out there than what the Times has done.


The reason child abuse deaths suddenly got so much attention in 2009, is that California changed state law to make case records available in these cases – while all other cases, including all allegations of wrongful removal, remain secret. The simple fact that one could learn more about child abuse fatalities in 2009 created the impression of a "series" of such deaths in 2009. The Times had reason to reinforce that impression after Ploehn made some very fuzzy statements. Then the Times went beyond what Ploehn actually said.

My best guess is that Ploehn did, indeed, say that her agency was going to curb the reunification of families. In its first story on Ploehn's comments, the Times took that to mean that

Los Angeles County has suspended a long-standing effort to reduce the number of children in foster homes because keeping more of the children with their birth families could be unsafe, the county's top child-welfare official said.

Although Therolf insists these two concepts mean the same thing, there is a vast difference between slowing down reunifications and concluding that "keeping more of the children with their birth families could be unsafe." The latter sounds like an indefinite end to all efforts to keep families together, not a slowdown of one such effort. And that is how the copy desk editor who wrote the headlines for both the print story ("County to end emphasis on family over foster care" and the version on the Times website ("L.A. County will no longer strive to reunite families,") took it.

Therolf argues that the editors to whom he reports directly knew what he meant – and were surprised at the headlines. But typically such editors don't just read the final version of a story cold, just before it's time to add the headline. Some of them, at least, have been discussing the story with the reporter throughout the day. At least one would have "pitched" the story at a meeting where editors decide what goes on the front page. So the editors simply know more than what is actually in the story.

Human nature also plays a role here. All of us tend to hear what we want to hear or expect to hear and filter out what contradicts our expectations. (That's why NCCPR supports requiring every interview in a child abuse investigation to be tape recorded.) The Times has been carrying on a crusade about child abuse deaths for months now. When reporters do that, they want results. So even for reasons unrelated to ideology, the reporters at the Times probably were thrilled with Ploehn's announcement. And, indeed, Thursday's story calls it "the most significant of several reforms…"

Suspending efforts to keep families together is worthy of such a claim (except for the use of the word "reform") slowing down reunifications is not. And suspending efforts to keep families together is a front-page story; slowing down reunifications is worth, at best, the front of the Metro section.


The same problem of going beyond the facts can be seen, unfortunately, in the follow-up story Friday, which was larded with loaded language. Here's how Therolf describes what the county has been doing in recent years:

For years, the county has focused on family reunification and preservation, seeking above all to rehabilitate once-abusive parents through drug treatment, anger management and other services. The number of children in foster care dropped from a high of 52,000 in 1997 to a low of 19,900 last year.

Almost every part of the first sentence is, at a minimum, disputable:

  • DCFS has not focused on family preservation. While the number of children in foster care on any given day (the number with which both Ploehn and the Times seem obsessed) has gone steadily down, the number of children taken away from their parents has risen alarmingly in most years since 2004. And a county that has focused on family preservation would not be taking children at a rate above the rate in most big metropolitan areas. (Details are on our website in our material about Los Angeles County child welfare.)
  • The claim that the county is seeking above all to keep families together is the caricature of family preservation used in attempts to discredit it all over the country. The Times is parroting The Big Lie of American child welfare. What DCFS is seeking to do, above all, is to keep children safe. To the extent that this may involve family preservation, it's because, for most children most of the time, that is safer than foster care.
  • The characterization of all parents in the system as "once-abusive" also is wrong. In our material on Los Angeles County child welfare, we tell the story of Gerardo R, originally told by the Metropolitan News Enterprise, a daily legal publication. Gerardo was a never-abusive parent whose children were taken from him solely because he did not have housing DCFS deemed adequate. The Times has simply declined to tell this story.

    Even as a legal matter, children can be in foster care for months, and then be returned home, before a court ever decides if, in fact, DCFS' allegations were true.


Ploehn hasn't helped things by making one fuzzy, contradictory statement after another. First, in Thursday's story Ploehn tells the Times that efforts to reduce foster care numbers would continue "only when I can assure everyone that the work we do results in safety for the child who is going home" to his or her family. She speculates that the snapshot number, the number of children in foster care on any given day, may well have gone as low as it can.

Then on Friday, she puts out a press release stating that "The department continues to remain steadfast in its commitment to reducing the number of children in foster care and to increasing the number of family reunifications."

But Friday's Times story reports that:

Asked whether she still believed that the foster care numbers might have gone down as far as possible, Ploehn said, "I don't think anyone can answer that question."

So, asked the simple question, can the number of children in Los Angeles County foster care on any given day go down any further? Ploehn has managed to answer "yes" "maybe not" and "I don't know" all in one week.

Actually, of those three answers, the most likely is yes, the number of children in foster care on any given day can be further reduced. Once again, the evidence is from other cities. If you take the number of children in Los Angeles County foster care on January 31 and divide it by the estimated number of impoverished children in the county, there are 37 Los Angeles children in foster care for every 1,000 impoverished children. In New York City it's 31. In Cook County, Illinois (metropolitan Chicago) it's 11. And in Illinois, where the system is state run, independent court-appointed monitors attest to the improvements in child safety.

As for why Ploehn rushed out a statement backing off from whatever it was she said, the Times says the statement came "after a flurry of criticism flooded her e-mail and voice mail."

I'll bet at least one of those e-mails came from her predecessor, David Sanders. Sanders went from DCFS to Casey Family Programs, a multi-billion dollar foundation active both in commendable efforts to promote child welfare reform and some not-so-commendable efforts to thwart child welfare accountability. Sanders is doing the good stuff, including putting Casey money and expertise behind efforts to help keep families safely together in Los Angeles. There have been some promising results.

As I've noted before, people at Casey spend a lot of time on this Blog and on; so much, in fact, that I've been tempted to send them an invoice for "technical assistance."

Friday, in two hours after our first post about Ploehn's comments appeared, this Blog received 15 hits from people at Casey Family Programs.

I don't know which they saw first, the Times story or this Blog, but either way, they couldn't have been pleased to read comments from Ploehn pulling the rug out from under them.

Fortunately, it's now harder to pull the rug out from under family preservation in L.A. than in most places, something I'll discuss on this Blog tomorrow.


I noted earlier that Garrett Therolf is a much better reporter than the one who invented the non-statistical series in New York. Therolf has done some excellent work, and not just on long-form projects. For years, I've cited a story he wrote in 2002, in which he turned what could have been a routine "night meeting" story into a work of art. I even sent it to the author of the superb textbook I used when I taught journalism and suggested he include it in a subsequent edition.

The story was about Debra Reid, whose son Jonathan was wrongfully taken away in 1997 only to die in foster care. The Board of Supervisors approved a settlement and, perhaps almost as important they apologized. And when Reid spoke, they actually paid attention. Here's how Therolf described it:

Virtually every week, a parade of parents come before the supervisors, pleading for help in getting their children out of that system. … The pleas often meet with indifference from county officials, who typically talk among themselves as parents address the supervisors. Tuesday was different.

For months, parents in the same circumstances have tried, desperately, to get the attention of Garrett Therolf and his colleagues at the Los Angeles Times. And, until last Thursday, when it was too late, their pleas were met with indifference from the journalists at the Times. Indeed, when people read in Thursday's story that "A group called DCFS Give Us Back Our Children often demonstrates outside Edelman Children's Court in Monterey Park, saying that too many children are removed from families unnecessarily" did they wonder why, since it's been going on for months, they'd never heard about it in the Times before?

And now, those parents, and their children, are likely to disappear from the news columns of The Los Angeles Times again. They're still waiting for "Tuesday."