Thursday, March 18, 2010

Foster care in Los Angeles: An inconvenient death

Did Viola Vanclief pay the price of panic?
If all one knew about child welfare was what one read on the news pages of the Los Angeles Times, one would think that only birth parents or other relatives kill children, and it's all because the county Department of Children and Family Services supposedly has been bending over backwards to keep families together.

That's been the "master narrative" – to use the late St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor William Woo's wonderful phrase – that guided Times coverage for most of last year and into this year. A master narrative it not something handed down from above. It's not some kind of media conspiracy. (As a former editor of mine liked to say, "there are no media conspiracies; we're not that well organized.")
Rather, the master narrative is simply the preconceived notions reporters bring with them to a story.

 The best reporters guard against being trapped by a master narrative. They constantly question their own assumptions.

One might think that if anything finally might have prompted Times reporters to question their master narrative it would be the tragic death of two-year-old Viola Vanclief. She died in a foster home overseen by a private agency with a long history of problems. The foster parents are under investigation. The foster mother says it was an accident. The police say it was a homicide. And in a story about the death on Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times says the equivalent of "move along, move along. Nothin' to see here." A follow-up story today displayed the standard double-standard in child welfare coverage based on where the child dies. I'll get to that below. But let's start with Tuesday's story.

It was written in a way that seems intended to mislead people into thinking that in no way does this case call into question the Times' master narrative, and it's still really birth parents we need to fear. According to the story:

The death comes as [DCFS Director Trish] Ploehn's department is facing scrutiny in the deaths of children under its watch. All but two of the more than 30 cases to come to light in the last two years have involved children killed while in the custody of their own parents

The identical paragraph appears in the follow-up story. Odds are it will become cut-and-paste boilerplate in almost every Times story about this case.

But the reason for that ratio of fatalities is not because foster care is safer, but simply because far fewer children live in foster care than in their own homes.

One could just as easily have said that the rate of child abuse deaths in Los Angeles foster care is nearly ten times the rate in the general population. That would have been equally misleading – for a reason for which we all should be grateful: the number of child abuse fatalities and, especially, fatalities in foster care, is low enough to fluctuate enormously due to random chance. For example, had Viola Vanclief escaped with her life – or if it turns out the death really was an accident – the rate of child abuse deaths in foster care over the past two years suddenly is cut in half.

It is entirely fair to point out, however, that several studies have found the overall rate of abuse in foster care to be alarmingly high, far higher than in the general population, with abuse in at least one in four or one in three foster homes - and probably more. The rate of abuse in institutions is even worse. (For details and citations, see NCCPR Issue Paper #1).


But the Times chose to spin the story in a way that swings the focus back to dangerous birth parents, setting up a follow-up story which focuses only on the need for better screening and background checks and tougher licensing standards.

It's the standard double-standard in typical child welfare coverage: Deaths at the hands of birth parents are blamed on a systemic bias toward family preservation, deaths in foster care are written off as aberrations, fixable with some changes in regulations. When newspapers break this pattern, as they did in Maine after the death of Logan Marr and in Missouri after the death of Dominic James, a funny thing happens: child welfare systems actually improve.

But unlike the newspapers in Maine and Missouri, the Times makes no mention of the possibility that the misuse and overuse of foster care itself could have contributed to this death.

The Times coverage also ignores an even more disturbing question: Was Viola Vanclief a victim of a foster care panic set off, in part, by the response to earlier Times stories?

We don't know. But that's never stopped a newspaper from making the points it wants to make by using some variation of "raises questions," so I see no reason for it to stop this Blog.

The first question is whether Viola Vanclief ever needed to be placed in foster care.

The follow-up story reports a series of allegations about Vanclief's birth mother and a series of claims about everything DCFS did to help. If all those allegations and claims are true, than the placement was justified. The problem is, the Times doesn't make clear that these are only allegations and claims – rather the Times uses the phrase "investigators determined," which gives the information in the case files obtained by the Times more credibility than it deserves.

In fact, it is possible that intensive mental health services might have allowed Viola's mother to care for her safely – we don't know that, but it's possible. It's also unlikely that DCFS ever offered that kind of help.

But framing the issue without even considering that the case file might be wrong is crucial to maintaining the standard double-standard; in the public mind, it takes the issue of family preservation off the table, because the issue is framed in terms of, as the Times story puts it "one high-risk home to another."

The follow-up story also mentions that Viola had an adult sister living in Ohio. The story does not explore whether DCFS considered placing Viola with her sister before turning to strangers.


The second question is whether there is, in fact, a foster-care panic. Although the number of children in foster care in Los Angeles County each month is available on the public DCFS website, the number of entries into care – that is, the number of children actually taken away from their parents over the course of a month – is available only on a private, internal site. Ploehn promised to provide me with these figures when she contacted NCCPR on Feb. 5. But she never did. The Times apparently doesn't want to know. So on Tuesday, NCCPR filed a California Public Records Act request in an attempt to obtain these data.

But let's assume, for the moment, that DCFS was absolutely right to take Viola Vanclief from her birth parents. Let's further assume that, unlike just about everyplace else in the country, Los Angeles County really did resist a foster-care panic – and that's not out of the question, thanks to their child welfare funding waiver.

That doesn't change the fact that, even before the Times turned up the heat, Los Angeles County was taking away children at a higher rate than most big cities. And it doesn't change the fact that in most years since 2004, entries into care increased.

For all their faults, child welfare agencies don't like placing children in substandard foster care. And California counties generally don't like subcontracting to private agencies, (known in that state as Foster Family Agencies,or FFAs) at all – because it costs more than when the county does the job itself.

So why does it keep happening?


When you take away too many children, you wind up begging for places to put them. Beggars can't be choosers. So even if the removal was justified and there is no foster care panic, DCFS' failure to curb wrongful removal probably played a role in this tragedy. Even if Viola really should have been taken away, the good foster home she deserved probably was being used by some other child who could have remained safely in his or her own home.

States and counties that don't take too many children don't have to lower standards for foster parents.
Similarly, the Times treats as a mystery the fact that there were so many investigations of alleged abuse by the foster mother of her foster children that never were substantiated (while an earlier allegation, involving one of the foster mother's own children was). In fact, the reason is probably the same reason why official figures for abuse in foster care are so much lower than the numbers found by independent studies: Overloaded agencies don't want to lose foster homes, and they don't want to look bad; after all, when they investigate abuse in foster care they are, in effect, investigating themselves. So there is a strong incentive to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil and write no evil in the case file.


The coverage of Viola Vanclief's death is not the only indication of the Times' master narrative at work. Another is how the Times covered events throughout the county earlier this month designed to celebrate successful family reunification: It didn't.

The Los Angeles Daily News did a story. So did KPCC Public radio. So did the Long Beach Press Telegram. But at the Los Angeles Times, family reunification is only news when it goes wrong.

One could argue of course that, precisely because successful family reunification is the norm, it's not newsworthy – like all those planes that don't crash. But people know that air travel is the safest form of transportation. They don't know that keeping families together is the safest answer in child welfare for the overwhelming majority of children. Since they don't know it, that makes stories about the success of family reunification newsworthy.

Just not at the L.A. Times.


So what comes next? Watch the letters to the editor column. Inevitably, there'll be a letter concluding that the only answer is to go back to the orphanage. After all, if you spend a year smearing efforts to keep families together, and then a child dies in foster care, what's left? Indeed, the one "expert" whose voice lead reporter Garrett Therolf regularly allows into his stories, precisely because she won't challenge his master narrative, seems to have some nostalgia for them.

In fact, this is, by far, the worst option. And nowhere is that more obvious than Los Angeles, once home to one of the most hideous child warehouses in America, the notorious MacLaren Children's Center.

The book I wrote about child welfare 20 years ago, Wounded Innocents, begins at MacLaren. This was a place so awful it actually has a self-help group for survivors. Say whatever you want about former DCFS Director David Sanders, but if the only thing he accomplished was closing that hellhole, that alone makes his tenure a success.

The letter writer will specify that she or he doesn't mean places like that, rather she or he wants good orphanages – as though wishing for this magically will make it so. But, of course, any orphanages will be regulated by the same agency that licensed Viola Vanclief's foster parents.

More important, institutionalization is inherently so harmful that there is no such thing as a good orphanage. And orphanages make almost impossible the best alternative for children who truly are not safe in their own homes: adoption. For details, see our Issue Paper on orphanages and our review of the research on residential treatment centers, which is what orphanages generally call themselves today.

If people had a chance to read about what really works in child welfare, they wouldn't even be considering orphanages. Maybe someday, the Los Angeles Times will give them that chance.