Monday, February 22, 2010

Fostering foster care panic in Oregon

The column in the Portland Oregonian last Jan. 5 certainly wasn't the worst of its kind I've ever seen – not by a long shot. But the column, just about the easiest in the world to write, was more disappointing than some of the others because the columnist, Steve Duin, usually does better work. It was the usual "boy-if-there's-one-thing-in-the world-that-I-hate-more-than-anything-it's-child abuse-and-all-the-people-who-let-this-child-die-must-be-lazy-or-idiots column. Such general venting of rage requires no actual reporting. Duin didn't even call the Juvenile Rights Project, the group that knows these issues better than any other in Oregon, and a group he's praised in a column a few years ago. Worst of all, this general venting of rage can only encourage a foster care panic and make an already bad system even worse.

Duin was responding to an Oregonian story about the death of 15-year-old Jeanette Maples. Allegedly starved and tortured over a period of years, here's what the girl's step grandmother told the newspaper she found after her death:

She found food padlocked in kitchen cupboards and a blood-spattered bedroom. … Investigators urged her not to view her step granddaughter's body. "They all told me that I did not want to see this body because it was the most horrific thing they'd ever seen."

There were plenty of warnings that Jeanette was in danger – it was one of those cases with more "red flags" than a Soviet May Day parade.

On Jan. 5, Duin weighed in. There was no new information, no new reporting. Just: Boy am I furious and here's who I'm mad at.


There is plenty of good reason for that fury. But that makes it no less self-indulgent, and no more likely to fix the Oregon child welfare system.

Part of his fury was directed at the secrecy that shields the Oregon Department of Human Services from scrutiny and accountability in such cases – much as it does with most child welfare agencies. He's right about that. It's why NCCPR has, for years, called for total transparency; not only open court hearings (which they already have in Oregon) but a strong rebuttable presumption that almost all records are open in every case, not just deaths or near deaths. (See our Due Process Agenda for details.) And that includes the names of workers involved in the case at every level.

But the rest of Duin's fury was directed at everyone in DHS who ever went near the case. "No one cared enough to connect the dots…" he declared. They're "automatons" who "can't be trusted to give a damn." He complained that no one will be fired, and quoted with approval a lawyer who has sued DHS who said. "…there needs to be accountability in the rank and file, where people get fired or turned out."

And that pretty much was the theme of the column: Off with their heads!

Duin could be right about the workers in this particular case. Maybe they don't give a damn. Maybe they don't care. Maybe they really are automatons who all deserve to be fired. Or maybe they care but they're incompetent – which is no better. Or maybe they care desperately. Maybe they are passionate about protecting children but were so overwhelmed that they missed even warning signs that, it would seem, were blatantly obvious.

I don't know. And neither does Steve Duin. In effect he's saying: I demand full public accountability – but why wait? I'll jump to my own conclusions now.

And that is enormously dangerous for children – especially in Oregon.


For starters, when you're firing blind, it's easy to hit the wrong target. A couple of years ago, Sam Cook, a columnist for the Fort Myers News Press, was relentless in attacking a caseworker who'd been connected with a case where a child died. He didn't actually know much about the caseworker's role in the case but, hey, the child died, there were warnings, so the caseworker must have been, to use Cook's favorite word, "incompetent."

Later, a very good reporter for the same newspaper found out that this caseworker had an exemplary record, and was someone no CPS agency could afford to lose. But by then it was too late. The caseworker had quit. "The things that have been written about me have not only affected me, but have also affected my family, friends, and co-workers," she said. "I love my job, really I do, but the stress of this was just too much."

There are some differences: Even from what little is known, the case in Florida was not as clear-cut as the one in Oregon. And Steve Duin is more careful and more measured than Sam Cook.

But there are worse consequences.

Oregon already takes away children at one of the highest rates in the nation, a rate 70 percent above the national average – and Oregon has been taking children at obscenely high rates for decades. Now, every caseworker has been reminded once again that they can take hundreds of children needlessly and, while the children will suffer terribly, the caseworker is safe – even if, at some point down the line, a child dies in foster care. But leave one child in her or his own home and have something go wrong and you'll be pilloried as not giving a damn, an automaton and so on.


And that's just the beginning. Though Duin complains that no one ever gets fired, to the extent that workers are disciplined at all, it's only for leaving children in dangerous homes, never for taking children from safe ones. (Contrary to what caseworkers often claim, when it comes to taking away children they are not damned if they do or damned if they don't – they're only damned if they don't.) In other words, the column is sure to accelerate any foster-care panic already underway in Oregon.

That means even more false allegations, more trivial cases, more children needlessly removed – and even less time to find the children in real danger. So the odds are, there will be even more tragedies like the death of Jeanette Maples. (For more on this, see our Issue Paper on foster care panics.)

Duin could argue that it's not fair for me to complain that he's firing blind when it's DHS that blindfolded him – and everyone else. But Duin didn't limit his shots just to the people who blindfolded him - who may, or may not, be the same people who played a role in the death of Jeanette Maples. He aimed a lot of his fire at the people at the bottom of the heap – frontline caseworkers who often want to defend themselves but are, themselves, gagged by their bosses.

It gets even worse if there happens to be a demagogic politician nearby. No doubt Duin would have loved the way Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty responded to the tragic deaths of the children of Banita Jacks. Within days, he'd fired everyone who had come anywhere near the case. (An arbitrator reversed the firings of those who had a right to appeal them.) The Washington Post loved it. They loved it less after the actions collapsed the entire D.C. system and sent removals of children soaring by 41 percent in a year. (Details are on our website here and in these previous posts to this Blog.) An independent court-appointed monitor overseeing a class-action lawsuit settlement found that years of work slowly rebuilding the system has collapsed like a house of cards.

Here, again, there are differences – the facts in the Jacks case are far more ambiguous than in the case of Jeanette Maples (though The Washington Post didn't think so at the time). Nevertheless, foster-care panics are why columns like Duin's – and stories like the story that preceded it, never make child welfare systems better, and sometimes make them worse. And you'd think the Oregonian would have noticed. This cycle has been playing out at that paper since 2004, when the Oregonian first discovered that there is such a thing as a child welfare system in that state. Over and over Oregonian reporters write the same story, only the name of the child is different. Over and over, Oregonian opinion writers vent their anger about it. And, except for an occasional glance, everyone averts their eyes from the elephant in the room – the state's obscenely-high rate of tearing apart families.


Perhaps in another year or so Duin will ask the same question ultimately posed by Sam Cook in Florida, who wrote: "I've flogged the Department of Children and Families like a rented mule. Where has it gotten us?"

Duin also writes that the failings by DHS in this case reminded him of the failure of our national security apparatus in the case of the attempt to bomb a plane on Christmas Day. I thought much the same, in reverse. As all the stories about red flags and miscommunication in connection with the attempted bombing came out, I thought of how much it sounded like what happens in CPS agencies. But the whole thing also reminded me of another big, powerful institution where big failures have been known to fall between the cracks.

That story in a future post to this Blog