Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Foster care in California: The capital is the child removal capital, too


Sacramento is now California's capital in more ways than one.

Our newest California Rate-of-Removal Index shows that Sacramento County is the child removal capital of California. Fortunately, that county is an exception.

Much of the news in the Rate-of-Removal Index is good. Over the past two years, there have been big improvements in several counties that used to form a "removal belt" in the Bay Area, including Santa Clara, Contra Costa, and Alameda Counties, though there's been little improvement in San Francisco. And there's been a striking change for the better in Riverside County, which used to be worst in the state.

And yes, once again, the counties taking proportionately fewer children often did better on key measures of child safety than counties still using a take-the-child-and-run approach.

Orange County, for example, takes children at a rate far lower than neighboring Los Angeles County, yet Orange County had the best safety outcomes among the ranked counties – a record significantly better than Los Angeles. But Los Angeles performed better than counties which took, proportionately, even more children, such as San Francisco and Santa Barbara.

Not surprisingly, the performance of Los Angeles County has worsened compared to other counties; showing only a small decline in entries. And the time period covered by these data don't include most of the months since the Los Angeles Times-fueled foster-care panic – a sudden surge in removals of children in the wake of high-profile child abuse deaths.

And the good news comes to a screeching halt in Sacramento.

Among the state's larger counties, Sacramento County now takes away proportionately more children than any other, when the number of children taken away is compared to the number of impoverished children in each county. Sacramento takes children at a rate nearly double the average for these counties.

And it's not hard to figure out why: Fourteen years which saw, with one relatively brief interruption, a lot of bad journalism, courtesy of The
Sacramento Bee.

Imagine if what the Los Angeles Times has been doing lately was done for the better part of fourteen years, and with a much more explicit effort to scapegoat efforts to keep families together, and you get the idea.


As far back as 1996, the Bee wrongly blamed family preservation for child abuse deaths. The resulting foster-care panic sent entries into care soaring – while doing nothing to curb fatalities.

In the early part of the last decade, a very good reporter, Mareva Brown, took over the child welfare beat, and coverage greatly improved. But when Brown left, so did the nuance and sophistication in Bee reporting.

By June 2008, the Bee was back to scapegoating family preservation. So, the Bee reported that:

As its top recommendation, [an] oversight committee advised CPS to make clear to social workers and families that "it must err on the side of child protection as opposed to family reunification."

Acting independently, the Child Death Review Team came to a similar conclusion: CPS must place child safety over keeping families together "in both written policy and active practice."

The problem is not that the Bee reported the findings. That is their obligation. The problem is that no other Grand Unifying Theory was offered for CPS failures – and no one outside CPS (which, for good reason, no one believes), is allowed to refute this one.

A sidebar makes clear that the committees are, in effect, speaking for the reporter. In writing about a particular case, she declares that it

comes to light only because she sued Sacramento Child Protective Services and two social workers for what happened to her in August 2001 - five years after the death of 3-year-old Adrian Conway, and the county's promise to place child safety over "family preservation."

Over the course of the year that followed, with caseworkers terrified of winding up on the front page, entries into foster care soared by 25 percent.

By the end of 2009, entries were declining again, but now the Bee is scapegoating family preservation once more.


The claim that child safety and family preservation are at odds is the Big Lie of American child welfare. County after county and state after state have learned that you can't have child safety without family preservation.

The real cause of the tragedies in Sacramento County is not too much emphasis on family preservation, but too little.

A good indication of the Bee's impact can be seen in a startling statistic in a report released Thursday by the Sacramento County Grand Jury. (The term "grand jury" doesn't mean in California what it means in most states. In California, grand juries are panels of citizens empowered to investigate the operations of county governments.)

According to the report, of all the children torn from their families by Child Protective Services, about a third are sent home again within 30 days. That's plenty of time to do great harm to a child's psyche. But if a child can be sent back home in a month, odds are that child never needed to be taken away in the first place.

The panic probably played a role in at least one high-profile tragedy. Amariana Crenshaw died under mysterious circumstances in a foster home with a long history of serious problems. The Bee did good work investigating the case, raising all sorts of good questions about how Amariana died – questions CPS barely bothered to ask. And the Bee uncovered one red flag after another about the foster home.

But the Bee left out one crucial fact: Its own role in creating conditions that made such a tragedy more likely. The more a foster care system is overwhelmed with children who don't need to be there, the less safe it becomes, as agencies are tempted to overcrowd foster homes and lower standards for foster parents. And even after all it learned about Amariana, the Bee still is taking cheap shots at family preservation and accepting as fact the false claim that it is at odds with child safety.


So, first the Bee did reporting that encouraged the overloading of the system. Then it reported on the death of a child in a substandard foster home, as though these were unrelated problems – and as though reporting on the problem in each new form is enough. Sadly, when it comes to child welfare, there is nothing unusual in this kind of "whack-a-mole" journalism.

Fortunately, the Bee no longer has quite the monopoly it used to. The Sacramento Press is a news website with a small paid staff and lots of citizen contributors. We are on the site starting today, telling the part of the child welfare story that the Bee leaves out.

The Bee is not the only one encouraging panic.

Sacramento's system is so primitive that in many cases, when CPS takes away a child, even a child as young as age one, they compound the trauma by placing that child not in a home but in an orphanage – the "Children's Receiving Home." When children really must be taken, these parking place shelters usually are the worst possible option. Without a steady supply of foster children, places like the "Children's Receiving Home" will go out of business. But the Children's Receiving Home hasn't been getting as many referrals lately, so they've joined in the fear-mongering.

Of course, progress all across California is threatened by budget cuts, and by the greed of the state's group homes and institutions, who used the courts to force the state to give them a giant rate increase. But in Sacramento, the progress hasn't even begun – because every time anybody tries, the local newspaper gets in the way.