Monday, April 26, 2010

Yes, Los Angeles, there IS a foster care panic


The number of children taken from their families in Los Angeles County has soared in the wake of news coverage of high-profile tragedies.

Data obtained by NCCPR through a California Public Records Act request show that from August 1 through December 31 2009, the number of children thrown into foster care by the Department of Children and Family Services soared 16 percent over the same period in 2008. In contrast, until August, entries had declined by five percent compared with the same period in 2008, and the 2008 figure was down from 2007.

With DCFS workers terrified of landing on the front page if they leave any child home and something goes wrong, the most vulnerable children in Los Angeles County have fallen victim to a classic foster-care panic. Our full report on the panic is available on our website.

The foster-care panic is even more tragic because 2008 had been the first year since 2003 in which DCFS did not take away more children than the year before. Now that progress has been reversed. The harm is compounded by the fact that, even before the panic, Los Angeles was taking away proportionately more children than most major metropolitan areas.


DCFS has sought to divert attention from the panic, first by denying it, and then by focusing on a very different number, the number of children in foster care on any given day. But that number can rise and fall for reasons unrelated to an agency's propensity to tear apart families in the first place. That's why the key number to watch to see if there is a foster-care panic is entries into care.


Those who falsely equate child removal with child safely may be pleased by these data; but their joy will come at the expense of the very children they say they want to protect. Foster-care panics make all children less safe.

The standard federal measure of safety, reabuse of children, has not improved even as entries into care have escalated.

There is no evidence that Los Angeles children are safer than children in Chicago or Miami, which take proportionately far fewer children, and where independent monitors have found that, as foster care rates have fallen, child safety has improved.

As removals declined, then increased again over the past decade, there has been no real change in the rate of deaths of children previously known to DCFS. (For the record, as entries escalated again in 2009, such deaths increased slightly, though the change was too small to blame on the panic.

That means all those additional children needlessly torn from everyone they know and love, all those children bounced from foster home to foster home, emerging unable to love or trust anyone, all those children abused in foster care itself, where the rate of abuse is far higher than in the general population, and far higher than generally realized, are suffering for nothing.

Wrongful removal overloads caseworkers, making it even less likely that they will find children in real danger. That overload almost always is the real reason for the very tragedies that have made headlines – and started the panic. That's why foster care panics make all children less safe. And that's why nationwide, the only child welfare systems that really have improved safety are those that reformed to emphasize family preservation.

2008 was the year Los Angeles County finally began to turn the corner and start doing just that. The progress was continuing in 2009.

But then, starting at the end of July, 2009, the Los Angeles Times started ratcheting up its coverage of deaths of children known to the system.

The problem is not the fact that the deaths were covered – accusing critics of wanting less coverage is a straw man media who get this story wrong often use to deflect any criticism. On the contrary, the deaths deserved all the attention they got, and more. As has been noted repeatedly on this Blog, the failings of the Times revolve less around what was in the stories than what was left out.

The stories about these terrible tragedies became ever more explicit in falsely scapegoating efforts to keep families together.


Times reporters repeatedly engaged in what can best be called inference peddling. For example, Times stories repeatedly portrayed family preservation as a "risk." The stories referred to a waiver from federal funding restrictions that allows money normally reserved for foster care to be used for better alternatives as a "wager". (The waiver probably kept the panic from being even worse.) That left readers to infer that, however emotionally harmful to children, at least foster care was safe.

Any such inference would be wrong. The evidence is overwhelming that, for the overwhelming majority of children, family preservation is the safer option and it is the grave risks of foster care that make it a bad bet for most children.

When that point was reinforced by the tragic death of Viola Vanclief, who was killed in foster care, the Times distorted fatality data in order to reinforce its point. In fact, Viola Vanclief may have paid the ultimate price for foster-care panic.

The result of all this is entirely predictable. Indeed, as readers of this Blog know, we predicted it at a news conference in Los Angeles last August. (The material we released at that news conference is available here.) Caseworkers, terrified of being on the front page, rushed to tear apart families needlessly and removals soared, reversing a year-and-a-half of progress."

NCCPR's report includes a long list of vital information the Times has denied its readers, including the existence of the foster-care panic itself.

Not only did the Times refuse to report the panic, it refused even to find out whether it had occurred. So when DCFS Director Trish Ploehn failed to follow through on a promise to provide the data to NCCPR, we filed our own California Public Records Act to obtain these data. (And at that point, DCFS staff cooperated fully with the request).

The fault does not lie solely with the Times. As also has been noted often on this Blog, there has been a profound failure of leadership at DCFS and grandstanding by the County Board of Supervisors.

The Los Angeles County foster care panic of 2009 represents a failure both of political will and journalistic integrity.