Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Foster care in Los Angeles: “The same dumb mistakes”

Here we go again. The death of a child "known to the system" is on the front page of the Los Angeles Times again today.

This time, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services had not yet decided if the child was at risk even though a case had been opened 57 days ago. Such determinations are supposed to be made within 30 days. But DCFS can't catch up because of a huge backlog of reports.

The agency director, Trish Ploehn, says she needs to hire lots more investigators. County Supervisor Gloria Molina doesn't agree, telling the Times: ""If you tell me we need more people to make the same dumb mistakes without proper supervision, I disagree."

Molina happens to be right about the fact that hiring more investigators won't help, something I'll get to below.

But the irony of any member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors complaining about anyone else making "the same dumb mistakes" in child welfare is, I trust, obvious.

And yet, Molina doesn't win the irony derby.

That honor goes to the Times itself, since when it comes to making "the same dumb mistakes" it's hard to top how the Times has been covering child welfare since Garrett Therolf took over the beat.

The kind of tragedy in today's story will happen over and over until the Times owns up to its own role – and changes its approach.

The lack of context in Times coverage of fatalities set off a foster-care panic – a sudden spike in children taken from their parents. In addition to causing enormous harm to the children needlessly taken, it also further overloaded the system – making the backlog even worse.

So even as more children are separated from everyone they know and love, more children in real danger are missed because workers are too busy to get to them in time.

None of this is hindsight. What was revealed in today's story is what we predicted would happen. When the Times refused to check into the panic we filed our own California Public Records Act request to obtain the data: Full details on the foster care panic, and the rest of what the Times declines to report are available on our website here. And this Orange County Register story, based in part on NCCPR's California Rate-of-Removal Index, discusses how Orange County has a far better grip on the problem.

As for hiring: DCFS should indeed be hiring. But if all they do is hire more workers, even as the Times fans the flames of foster-care panic, those new workers will just spin their wheels investigating more false reports and trivial cases and taking away more children needlessly. All you'll get is the same lousy system only bigger – as is clear from what's happened in the past few years in Texas and, most recently, Indiana. In contrast, New Jersey hired more workers, but did it as part of a comprehensive reform plan that emphasized doing more to keep families together. The results are documented in the previous post to this Blog.

So instead of investigators, DCFS should be hiring family preservation workers to bring the right kinds of help into the homes of troubled families. That really will cut caseloads and give investigators more time to find children in real danger.