Monday, May 17, 2010

Foster care in Los Angeles: Still deep in denial at the LA Times

The latest big "revelation" from the Los Angeles Times concerning the county Department of Children and Family Services is that DCFS can't keep up with all the reports alleging child maltreatment. Gee, what a surprise.

The Times reports that more than 18,000 investigations remained open beyond the 30 days mandated by the state. Even when the state doubled the time allowed to complete an investigation, 3,700 such investigations could not be completed on time.

At least as alarming: Many investigations that are completed are too superficial, increasing the likelihood of bad decisions in all directions (though, of course, the Times didn't put it that way).

But the story attributes the problem solely to "too few staff burdened with a litany of new tasks intended to reduce the deaths of children whose families already had come under the department's scrutiny."

For starters, those new tasks almost certainly won't reduce child abuse deaths.
As this Blog often has noted, a major national study found that none of the traditional investigative and enforcement powers of CPS agencies actually accomplishes that. So DCFS would have been more likely to make children safer by putting those same resources into the few things that really do work, such as more prevention programs, and efforts to curb teen pregnancy and ameliorate the worst effects of poverty.

But, of course, the various new bureaucratic procedures aren't really designed to protect children. They are CYA measures, designed to protect caseworkers and, especially, their bosses, from being blamed for the next tragedy. (And they won't work anyway, since it's clear that the Times will scapegoat DCFS for any death of a child "known to the system" regardless of the circumstances – at least until editors lose interest, declare the "success" of their crusade and move on to something else).

More important, the Times story fails to mention the other likely cause of the backlog - the foster-care panic caused largely by the Times itself.

The kind of out-of-context hype and hysteria-fueled coverage of child abuse fatalities that has characterized the Times approach usually prompts a surge in false allegations and trivial cases - mostly from well-meaning people who are told over and over to report their slightest suspicion, no matter how absurd.

Operators at child abuse "hotlines" become more afraid to screen out such allegations, and workers become more afraid to label them unfounded - indeed, one of the new procedures in Los Angeles County makes it harder for workers to do just that.

So of course there is no way to keep up with the load - and, of course, more children are endangered – even as many other children are subjected to prolonged traumatic investigations and, in some cases, needlessly thrown into foster care.

And, of course, the Times story mentions almost none of this.