Monday, March 29, 2010

LA Times foster care coverage: The case of the misleading lead

Talk about blowing the lead. The first 12 words in yesterday's feeble attempt by the Los Angeles Times to add some context to its child welfare coverage are grossly misleading, and possibly flat wrong. Those 12 words are: "As deaths among abused and neglected children have mounted in recent months…"

But the story offers no evidence of any such thing.

Rather, once again, the Los Angeles Times is repeating the New York Times fallacy: confusing an increase in media attention to child abuse deaths with an actual increase in deaths. And, amazingly, given the misleading lead, later in the story, the Times essentially admits as much.

According to yesterday's story, there have been about 35 deaths of children "known to the system" since January, 2008. That would be an average of one such tragedy every 23 days. There may have been an increase of three deaths in 2009 compared with 2008 – but the figures for both years are below the figure for 1998, when more children were taken from their homes, and vastly more were in foster care on any given day.

If there is any evidence that this rate has increased "in recent months" – whatever "recent months" means, the story does not provide it. Indeed, if the two such deaths that have been the subject of Times stories in 2010 are the only such cases, then the rate has declined. And either way, it tells us absolutely nothing about whether the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services is doing a better or a worse job of keeping children safe.

When you are talking about an average of roughly 18 deaths a year among children "known to the system" in a city with 3.2 million children and a child welfare agency with thousands of workers, it should be obvious that the fatality number alone can rise and fall due to random chance, and trying to judge whether an agency is getting better or worse based on that number is idiotic. (It also helps explain that major new study which found that investigating more cases and taking more children does nothing to curb fatalities, while focusing on prevention and ameliorating poverty does.)


Indeed, much farther down in the story the Times finally hints at the real story – and contradicts the lead. According to this part of the story:

Under [DCFS Director Trish] Ploehn, a 30-year department veteran, the agency's failings have come to light more readily than in the past, largely because of a state law that opened previously confidential records. Before the law took effect in 2008, virtually all information about children's deaths from abuse or neglect was kept from public view, ostensibly to protect the privacy of victims and their families. Reports about horrific cases leaked out sporadically.

In other words, as far as anyone can tall, the deaths haven't mounted, the Los Angeles Times has simply decided to pay attention.

Still absent from Times coverage are two salient facts: Even people with no love of family preservation, like Deanne Tilton Durfee, probably America's most quoted "expert" on child abuse fatalities, who, according to the competing Los Angeles Daily News "agreed the increase in deaths [in 2009 compared to 2008] is not a 'significant increase in the larger spectrum of things.'" And, for those who absolutely insist on using this measure, as noted above, such deaths actually are down from 1998 decade ago – a time when DCFS was taking away more children.

Garrett Therolf, the lead reporter on the Times stories, claims that the way deaths are measured has changed since 1998. But he actually made that claim not in the Times but in the excellent Blog, which he apparently contacted to object to something they'd written. He's done the same with this Blog – utterly oblivious to the irony in his constant demands that everyone else tell his side of the story, even as he systematically omits those who favor family preservation from his own reporting. Why hasn't he raised the issue of comparing rates of child abuse deaths in the Times itself? Perhaps because then he'd have to mention the fact that, by at least one measure, deaths have declined. And then he'd have to deal with whole issue of whether you can evaluate DCFS based on fatalities. And then the whole house of cards on which the Times coverage has been built collapses.


That blackout of family preservation advocates continued yesterday, as the story, apparently meant to be some kind of overall assessment of DCFS Director Trish Ploehn's performance, left out anyone from DCFS-Give Us Back Our Children, the grassroots group arguing that DCFS isn't doing enough to keep families together. (That group turned up only when Therolf apparently thought he was writing family preservation's obituary in Los Angeles.)

Yesterday's whole story reads like tokenism – the story to point to when people say the Times coverage lacked any context. Do it once, get it out of the way, and then back to business as usual.

And even as tokenism, it's not very good. Because totally absent is any guidance for readers to allow them to determine if, in fact the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services has made children safer over the past decade and whether it is likely to do so in the future. How are readers supposed to know? The implication is that you know by counting the number of deaths. But what if that number rises this year, just because the EMTs who might have saved lives in a couple of cases went to the wrong house or got stuck in traffic? What if it falls because someone shot at a child – and missed? What if it changes because deaths that one year are considered accidental the next year are considered "neglect" – or vice versa? That gives some idea of how absurd it is to try to use deaths of children known-to-the-system as a measure. Better measures exist – the Times simply hasn't discussed them, much less committed, in advance, to actually using them.

Still, the story did serve one useful purpose: It included a lot about how the county Board of Supervisors loves to preen and posture about these cases, and pronounce itself shocked – shocked! – by things it had every reason to know about all along.