Thursday, August 19, 2010

Foster care panic in Cleveland: Child welfare goes haywire - again


    This may be the best indication of just how bad things are in Cleveland right now: The most reasonable, most rational, most sensible comments about child welfare are coming from politicians.

    Two of the three Cuyahoga County Commissioners have defended the county Department of Children and Family Services against claims by the Cleveland Plain Dealer that not only are misleading and out-of-context but also, sometimes, just plain wrong on the facts.

    Whereas the Los Angeles Times has committed largely sins of omission – and has backed off both from claims that recent child abuse tragedies are a "series" or a "spate" and from overt attempts to link such tragedies to family preservation, the Plain Dealer's coverage since March has been as sleazy as any I've seen, ranking right up there with what the Philadelphia Inquirer did in 2006 and 2007 – coverage that was superbly-critiqued by the alternative weekly CityPaper. Indeed, even the Inquirer did not have as much of a problem with basic accuracy.

    And it's having exactly the effect one would expect – the one we predicted in these previous posts about Cleveland.

The Los Angeles Times was only able to start a foster-care panic good for a 16 percent increase in removals (in part because of some unusual financial incentives in Los Angeles which counteracted some of the coverage). But from March, when the Plain Dealer launched its crusade, through June, the most recent month for which data are available, the number of children torn from their homes in Cuyahoga County has soared by 60 percent compared with the same period in 2009. During those same four months, the number of children freed from foster care plummeted by one-third.

That means it's only a matter of time before all the other problems associated with foster-care panic become apparent: DCFS becomes desperate for beds, foster homes become overcrowded, standards for foster parents are lowered, more children moved from home to home and more children are placed in group homes and institutions run by powerful private agencies paid for every day they hold those children in care. Indeed, it appears to be people at private foster care agencies who are fueling some of the Plain Dealer's coverage.

But a foster-care panic seems to be just what the Plain Dealer wants. A Plain Dealer editorial declared that DCFS' job "is to whisk youngsters out of dangerous homes…" In fact, DCFS' job is to ensure that children are safe – preferably by removing the danger and only when that isn't possible by removing the child.

And de facto editorial writer Harlan Spector (officially what he writes are referred to as "news stories") summed up the Plain Dealer party line in a story last week. According to the story:

Critics say the county has been too quick to return children to troubled households, too slow to remove them from risky environments and too conservative in launching investigations.

A foster parent then got five paragraphs to attack DCFS for doing too much to keep families together – with no rebuttal.

Of course there also were the usual features of these sorts of crusades: the ritual editorial page demand for the firing of the agency chief, in this case DCFS Director Deborah Forkas. Forkas herself followed the ritual – she named an OBRC (Obligatory Blue-Ribbon Commission) to study her agency.

The whole thing is all-the-more reprehensible because the Plain Dealer is the one place with less excuse than any other newspaper to make these mistakes. Because the Plain Dealer is the one newspaper to own up to these kinds of mistakes, and expose the price of panic, when very similar errors were made more than a decade ago.

Every time reporter Spector and the editorial writer who handles these issues (probably Sharon Broussard, who wrote the editorials cited in earlier posts to this Blog) repeats these blunders they also, in effect, spit in the faces of the far better former Plain Dealer journalists who wrote Child Welfare Gone Haywire in 2004.


    In calling for Forkas' resignation, a Plain Dealer editorial declared that "under Forkas' management, children's services staff have returned children to mothers who later killed them and they have dragged their feet on removing toddlers found in a home full of cat feces."

    Leaving aside the fact that the latter claim isn't quite accurate (more on that later), if that's the criterion for firing child welfare agency chiefs, almost every such job in every medium and large sized jurisdiction in America will be vacant – forever.

    Neither the editorial writer, presumably Broussard, nor anyone on the news side has produced any evidence that child abuse fatalities among children known to the system, or other tragedies, have increased under Forkas' watch. And given the size of Cuyahoga County a one-year change, for better or worse, in the most extreme cases wouldn't tell us anything. (More on that on Monday). Nevertheless, now that the Plain Dealer is paying attention to them, the tragedies have been declared a "series" a "string" and a "spate."

    But you have to wonder how desperate they are for horror stories when you get to the cat feces case.

    The "hook" there was that animal control officers removed the cats, but DCFS didn't remove the children. That, of course, implies they arrived simultaneously, the DCFS workers saw the filth and didn't care. Or, as a Plain Dealer news story by reporter Laura Johnston put it: "Two toddlers were removed from their cat-feces covered home five months after the Animal Protective League called Children and Family Services."

    Except that's not true.

    Although an animal control officer says he reported the case to DCFS as soon as he saw it, DCFS says they did not receive a call until more than a month later – and Forkas says she has a tape to prove it. By then, Forkas says – and no one disputes - the family had moved in with relatives and everything was neat and clean. DCFS helped the family move to a new home, monitored them for two months, then closed the case. A month later things had deteriorated. The new home allegedly was as bad as the old. On that occasion, there apparently is no dispute that animal control notified DCFS right away. DCFS responded right away – and immediately removed the children.

    Yet Johnston's news story implied the children were in the same filthy house for five months, and accepted the animal control officer's claim as true. Broussard wrote in an editorial that even if DCFS' account is correct, and they really did find the family living with relatives in a neat, clean home, that doesn't excuse their "failure" in this case. Apparently, Broussard expects DCFS workers to be psychic. It's a demand she has made of those workers in connection with at least one previous case as well.


    Initially the problem at the Plain Dealer was primarily with the editorial page. Their failures, including the accuracy problem, are described in these earlier posts to this Blog. At that time, the news coverage played it straight, and one reporter, Diane Suchetka, who once had been the regular reporter on the social services beat, tried hard to add context and perspective. But, for whatever reason, she's not covering these stories anymore. The work of her replacement, Harlan Spector, is a classic example of the sneer and swagger that is typical of the worst child welfare reporting.

    Spector's specialties are loaded language and declaring his own opinions to be fact. In his story about the cat feces case, Spector decreed that "Had the system worked like [sic] it's supposed to, the kids would have been taken into custody in November." One could as easily opine that had the system worked as it's supposed to, the family would have gotten intensive, ongoing help so their new home would not deteriorate. Neither opinion belongs, unattributed, in a news story.

    A month later, Spector was back, offering up the shocking revelation that Cuyahoga County's child abuse hotline screens out some calls – just like just about every other child abuse hotline in America. The story implies that this didn't happen at all before Forkas instituted a new policy – though it's clear from what amounts to the story's fine print that it did. The story claimed that half of all calls now are screened out. The story also claimed that "the policy has child welfare advocates in an uproar."

    In fact, Cuyahoga County always screened calls. What's new is that the county now is following state guidelines for screening – something buried in a brief mention far down in the story.

    The claim that the county is screening out half of all calls, "is simply not accurate" according to County Commissioner Timothy Hagan. In a Plain Dealer op ed column he wrote:

    In fact, less than one-third are screened out, primarily because: (1) They have already been reported and are under investigation (duplicates account for about 15 percent of screen outs); or (2) the call doesn't meet the state's criteria for abuse and neglect. For example, a caller might report poor hygiene, a dirty home, a spanking or a parent swearing at a child -- none of which alone meet state criteria. But even then, DCFS social workers consider both the child's age and the severity of the incident when determining whether to investigate. 

Finally, numbers don't tell the whole story. In December 2008, DCFS converted to a state-mandated data management system. Cuyahoga County resisted this switch because many other Ohio counties reported problems with the system. Under this system, every call is documented whether or not it involves a child at risk. A worker goes through 16 screens and multiple drop-down menus to document each call. If she makes a mistake -- perhaps misspelling a name or entering an incorrect birth date -- it counts as a "screen out," thus requiring a new record. This creates more records but not necessarily more cases that require investigation. 

    Of course I can't prove Hagan is right and Spector is wrong. But in the weeks since Hagan's op ed column ran, as far as I know, the Plain Dealer has neither corrected its reporting – nor challenged Hagan's rebuttal. That's often the way newspapers handle a blunder when they know they screwed up but don't want to admit it.

    As for those "child welfare advocates" supposedly "in an uproar," of the three quoted, two of them work for big private agencies that live on a steady supply of foster children. And lately, in Cuyahoga County, the living hasn't been so easy.


    That brings me to the story that just might explain everything: The one about budget cuts.

    Like just about everywhere else in the country, Cuyahoga County is facing budget problems, and all departments were ordered to cut their budgets. Those that exceeded their targets in the last fiscal year got some of the money back this year as a reward. DCFS was one of those agencies.

    Some budget cuts last year and in previous years took a serious toll. But DCFS did most of the cutting in exactly the right way: by taking fewer children and, especially, by relying more on family foster care and less on group homes and institutions which are both the worst form of care and the most expensive.

    So, first DCFS cuts the number of children warehoused in institutions and group homes run by private agencies paid for every day they hold children in foster care. Then, a few months later, lo and behold: Stories appear in the Plain Dealer about the horrors resulting when not enough children are taken from their homes. Perhaps it's a coincidence. But if not, it certainly wouldn't be the first time people with a vested interest fed stories like that to credulous reporters.

    And the Plain Dealer wrote the budget cut story in exactly the way the private agencies would want. Laura Johnston's story began this way:

Cuyahoga County's child welfare agency ended last year with a $7.5 million surplus -- more than any of the county's other offices -- in part by keeping more children with their parents rather than in foster homes. And the county has rewarded that thriftiness despite recent high-profile cases in which children died or suffered severe malnutrition after the agency reunited them with their mothers.

    The story even rehabilitated the politician singled out by the Plain Dealer's excellent reporting in 2004 as most responsible for making child welfare go "haywire" in the 1990s. Whereas the 2004 stories exposed how much harm then-County Commissioner Timothy McCormack had done, when he gave the Plain Dealer the quote it wanted, criticizing the budget cuts, McCormack became "a long-time champion of child welfare services." The story did note that McCormack is running for the newly-created post of Cuyahoga County Executive.

    None of this would matter so much if not for the fact that children's lives are at stake – literally. Because while Cuyahoga County is too small to detect any pattern, the one thing we know from places that are big enough is that over and over again, foster-care panics have had the same result: More children die.

    It looks like the Obligatory Blue-Ribbon Commission named by Forkas to study the system understands that. And that probably explains why the Plain Dealer now is going after the commission. That story Monday.