Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Foster care in Los Angeles: DCFS seeks to silence dissent. I wonder where they got THAT idea?

    I don't know if anyone at the Los Angeles Times actually exclaimed "Thank you, Lord!" when the county Department of Children and Family Services launched an investigation into leaks of information about child abuse deaths – but I'll bet that's what plenty of journalists at the Times were thinking.

    That's because there's no better way to keep a story alive and give reporters an excuse to regurgitate everything they've already told us (while continuing to leave out everything they've left out all along).

    DCFS' whole approach to information is, first and foremost, morally reprehensible. Just as all court hearings should be open in child welfare cases, almost every scrap of paper in every case, not just the horror stories, should be available to press and public. (In those rare cases where disclosure of a given document really would seriously harm a child, the lawyer for the child or the parents should ask the court to withhold the minimum amount necessary to prevent that harm. For details see our Due Process Agenda.) But DCFS' approach also is remarkably stupid.

    First DCFS stopped releasing information about child abuse deaths – arguably in violation of state law. Of course, that only meant that people within the agency would leak the information. So instead of all the information on a given case coming out at once, it drips out, leading to multiple stories instead of one. Now, the leak investigation itself is news, so Times reporters can keep the story going, and push their take-the-child-and-run agenda all over again.

    So first came the news story yesterday. Today, Tim Rutten, a columnist who has emerged as the most overt proponent of that take-the-child-and-run agenda, repeated what was in the story and made outraged comments about it.

    Rutten writes:

The theory here is that if you cut off reporters' information, so that nobody knows exactly how the children died, it's as if they're not dead. No matter how agonizing a child's end, a vast bureaucratic silence will absorb his or her cries, and it will be as if they never lived — or died — at all. If any sound escapes, it will be that faint official splash that first echoed when Pilate washed his hands.

    In other words, Rutten is accusing DCFS of trying to behave like – the Los Angeles Times.

    It is the Times that has imposed a news blackout on cases in which DCFS wrongly removes children from their homes.

    It is the Times that systematically omitted deaths of children in foster care from a list of high-profile fatalities over the past 12 years.

    It is the Times that has refused to report the foster-care panic sweeping through the county – the spike in removals of children from their homes by caseworkers terrified of landing on the front page.

And it is the Times that has failed to report that, all over the country, such panics have so overwhelmed caseworkers that they've had even less time to find children in real danger – so child abuse deaths increased.

Or, as Tim Rutten might say, but wont: If you cut off the public's information, so that nobody knows how many children have been torn needlessly from everyone they know and love, it's as if it never happened. No matter how agonizing the experience of removal, and how great the risk of abuse in foster care and lifelong emotional scars, a vast journalistic silence will absorb their cries, and it will be as if they'd never suffered at all.

There is one difference of course. When government tries to censor information, it usually leaks to the journalists. When what is still the largest and most influential news organization in a region is the censor, it's far less likely that the public ever will find out.


All that said, however, when it comes to starting foster care panic, stifling dissent, loaded language and otherwise stacking the deck in child welfare coverage, the people at the Los Angeles Times are amateurs. To see a truly professional hatchet job, you've got to check out the Cleveland Plain Dealer. That story tomorrow.