Monday, August 23, 2010

Foster care task force in Cleveland: Horrors! They’re not relying on horror stories!

    That must have been an amazing scene outside the Jane Edna Hunter building in Cleveland week before last. The members of the Obligatory Blue Ribbon Commission studying the county's Department of Children and Family Services came marching out and gathered in front of the building. The chairman unrolled a scroll and read aloud: HEAR YE! HEAR YE! THE OBLIGATORY BLUE RIBBON COMMISSION INVESTIGATING THE CUYAHOGA COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN AND FAMILIES DOES HEREBY PROCLAIM THAT ALL IS WELL! DCFS IS FUNDAMENTALLY SOUND!
    And what fools they looked like when, just two days later, it was revealed that they'd never gotten the very information they'd have to have to reach such a conclusion!

    None of that is true, of course. It is, however, the impression left by the King of Loaded Language, Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Harlan Spector, in a story he wrote about the group's work published on August 13. In that story, Spector never actually lies, he just leaves an impression that is light years from the truth. It is a textbook example of the journalism of child welfare at its worst.


    One can see the technique simply by comparing how Spector wrote the story first, before he found a way to spin it, and then a few days later. The first version, on August 10, at least began as a straightforward news account:

    …[T]he head of a task force examining the agency's reunification practices said the department is fundamentally sound.
   Even in the worst cases in which children known to the county were harmed, "there's nothing in these cases that suggests we need to upend . . . the system," said task force chairman David Crampton of Case Western Reserve University. He said the panel still expects to recommend systemic changes.
   "I don't think radical change is needed," he said. 

Spector then used the rest of the story to try to undermine that conclusion – recapitulating, and in one case, distorting the known facts, in the same litany of horror stories dredged up over and over in the Plain Dealer's attempt to stampede the county into tearing apart more families. The distortion concerns the "cat feces case" discussed in detail in the previous post to this Blog.

    Then came a paragraph alleging that "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" followed by five paragraphs of a foster parent claiming DCFS was doing too much to keep families together , with no rebuttal from anyone, let alone those who might think the agency takes too many children needlessly – especially now that the Spector and his colleagues have set off a foster-care panic sending removals soaring by 60 percent.


    But apparently this wasn't sleazy enough for Spector and/or his editors. So on August 13, he essentially rewrote the story with a far more sensational lead:

    A review panel that proclaimed Tuesday the beleaguered county Department of Children and Family Services is fundamentally sound has not received critical information to do its job, including case files about children who were killed or harmed.
    The agency has refused to allow the task force to review agency files of high-profile cases that spurred department Director Deborah Forkas to appoint the panel last spring. 

    While none of that is literally false, (although the part about "critical information" is very much in dispute) all of it is grossly misleading. For starters, notice how what was "said" on Tuesday was "proclaimed" by Friday, making the statement sound like more of a whitewash, and making the Special Task Force, as it's officially called, look that much dumber when they discovered they wouldn't get those supposedly crucial files.

    As for "beleaguered," it is, of course, Spector himself, and editorial writer Sharon Broussard who are "beleaguering" the agency. (Editorials are unsigned, but Broussard wrote the early editorials on these issues and, as far as I know, still has responsibility for them.)

    In fact, there is no evidence that children are any less safe now than they were in past years. Indeed, DCFS maintains that the most reliable available safety indicator – reabuse of children known to the system – has remained unchanged; something the Plain Dealer has chosen not to report – just as the Plain Dealer has chosen not to report the 60 percent increase in children torn from their homes.

    As for the files on the horror story cases, when it comes to judging the overall performance of DCFS, they aren't crucial and the revelation is anything but new. Indeed, the entirely-unattributed claim that this is
"critical information to do its job," is simply Harlan Spector's personal opinion.


    While Spector attributes the revelation that the task force won't get this information to meeting minutes, he doesn't mention that this actually appears in the minutes of the task force's very first meeting, on May 20. Perhaps Spector simply didn't bother to read the minutes at the time.

    The next time this issue arises is in the minutes of a task force meeting on July 15. According to Spector:

   Minutes of the task force's meetings show that the panel has not been given information it requested about the cases. The minutes don't specify which cases were requested, referring to them as "high profile and reunification cases."
   "The data will help the panel determine where in the process is the break down," said minutes from a July 15 meeting.

    But Spector took the meeting minutes, available in full here, out of context. The minutes actually say that a subcommittee dealing with a practice known as Team Decisionmaking (TDM) discussed items including:

   The difficulty in getting adequate data on the TDM practice concerns in the high profile and recent reunification cases; the data will help the panel determine where in the process is the break down. [Emphasis added].

So, in fact, the quote in question pertained to:
--One subcommittee of the panel.
--Data from the files, not the files themselves.
--A "breakdown" not in the entire Cuyahoga County child welfare system, but in one facet of that system, Team Decisionmaking, in these particular cases.   

   And for the "reunification cases," which are 122 of the approximately 126 at issue, Forkas has said she will provide the data.

    As I've said often on this Blog, most recently just last week, I believe not only Obligatory Blue Ribbon Commissions but every member of the press and the public should be able to see nearly everything in every case file. But that's a separate issue from whether Harlan Spector grossly distorted what the task force actually said.


    Spector's distortions in these stories are part of a larger theme in Plain Dealer "reporting." From the moment the task force was announced, the Plain Dealer has whined about the fact that the members were "handpicked" by Forkas who told them what to look into.

    So after briefly noting DCFS' claims that they couldn't provide the actual files in the horror story cases because prosecutors asked them not to share those files, and after briefly paraphrasing the task force's reasoning for not needing horror stories to evaluate the overall performance of the agency (more on that below), Spector writes:

    The denial of case records nonetheless indicates the extent to which the county has shaped the outside review of the department. Forkas appointed the 32-member panel and assigned the group areas of study. [Emphasis added.]

   You do have to admire the work of a true master in almost any field – and once again, with that paragraph, Spector shows his mastery of loaded language. Because, again, it's literally true, but grossly misleading.

   Who, exactly would the Plain Dealer like to see name a task force like this? If, say, the County Commissioners had named the task force, that would make them no more independent, since the commissioners have ultimate responsibility for DCFS.

   In fact, the membership of the Task Force looks just about like the membership of almost every other Obligatory Blue Ribbon Commission named when newspapers rediscover that their communities have child welfare agencies and that sometimes children known to those agencies die.

   As for the claim that Forkas "assigned the group areas of study" in fact, Forkas gave the task force a very broad charge. According to the minutes from the first meeting:

The charge issued to the panel was as follows: to develop specific recommendations focusing on decision points related to the reunification process and the decisions that the agency makes; a review and recommendation on permanency, as well as recommendations to expand the agency's service delivery model related to evidence based practice.

    That covers pretty much anything the task force wants to cover – and neither Spector nor Broussard, has said what other issues they'd like to see the task force look at.

     But this kind of spin is perfect for the Plain Dealer's purposes. If the task force doesn't say what Spector and Broussard want it to say, then the spin is: "Well, what did you expect? Forkas named the task force." Had it issued harshly critical findings, then the Plain Dealer would have said "Even Forkas handpicked panel concluded…" Heads we win, tails you lose.


    The real failing of the task force membership is that, like almost every other such panel ever created, it lacks either a birth parent who feels her or his children were wrongfully removed or at least a lawyer who regularly represents such parents. According to the minutes, once again, birth parents were to get a "focus group."

    Virtually every other constituency – doctors who specialize in child abuse, law enforcement, judges, lawyers who represent children in these cases, private agencies, and leading academicians are represented. It's the usual rounding up of the usual suspects. But that means that, as usual, the debate is limited to whether the child welfare agency is doing too much family preservation or just enough. The possibility that the county is doing too little to keep families together was off the table from day one.

    So when the task force says, (not proclaims, says), that DCFS is fundamentally sound, either:

      ● there is a massive conspiracy on the part of virtually every constituency involved in the study or practice of child welfare in Cuyahoga County, Ohio to cover up the failings of DCFS or,

      ● the system really isn't endangering children's lives by failing to take enough of them away.

   Take your pick.


    The next day, Broussard weighed in. She had a different explanation for why the task force somehow came to conclusions different from her own. They'd been duped!

   After regurgitating the same horror stories that supposedly prove DCFS is failing systemically, Broussard added that "On Friday came news that the task force has not been allowed to see the files on the very cases that triggered its formation." Apparently, Broussard also didn't read the actual minutes of the Task Force meetings. (It's not that much of a chore, they're only five or six pages each).

   But at least Broussard allowed the task force chairman, Prof. David Crampton to defend the task force's work:

    Task force chairman David Crampton, a respected child-welfare scholar and associate professor at Case Western Reserve University's Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, understandably bristles at the notion that he or other panelists are being manipulated into a bias in favor of Forkas or her department.
   "My job is not to protect the job of a Deb Forkas; it is to have the best child-welfare system in the country," Crampton says. "I'm not doing this for any other reason than that."
   He adds that any best-practices review of child welfare won't dwell on a handful of tragedies but instead will take the widest-angled view possible of systemwide practices. [Emphasis added.]


    And that last sentence illustrates why the task force has been vastly smarter about all of this than either Spector or Broussard.

    As I've noted often on this Blog, the way to figure out how a child welfare system typically functions is to look at the typical cases.

    Suppose the Plain Dealer were judged solely by its greatest screw-ups, the stories that required the most embarrassing corrections? They'd be the first to say that this is an absurd way to evaluate anyone. "Why dwell on a handful of our worst blunders?" the newspaper would say. "You should be taking the widest angle view of our total performance."

   There is one crucial difference, of course: When DCFS screws up, children die. But that makes it all the more important not to use horror stories to fashion solutions that only make things worse.

   Unfortunately, the Plain Dealer's own crusade already has had just that effect. As is discussed in detail in the previous post to this Blog, the work of the Plain Dealer, mostly Spector and Broussard, has set off a classic foster-care panic – with entries into care up 60 percent and exits down by one-third.

   Not only does this do terrible harm to the children needlessly removed, it also overloads workers so they have even less time to find children in real danger. That's why all over the country, in systems that, unlike Cuyahoga County are so large that it's possible to detect a pattern, over and over foster-care panics have been followed by more deaths of children "known to the system."

   In other words, when caseworkers, terrified of landing on the front page react to hyped, distorted, news stories like the ones in the Plain Dealer exactly the way Cuyahoga County caseworkers are responding now, the typical result is that more children wind up dead.

   To the extent that the minutes of the task force meetings reveal any failings, they suggest that Forkas is too sanguine about the panic, and the task force itself has not yet addressed it.

   But, as I've noted in every post about Cleveland, two former Plain Dealer reporters did – in their outstanding dissection of the last foster care panic in Cuyahoga County, Child Welfare Gone Haywire. That 2004 story warned of exactly the type of journalistic failure that now typifies Spector and Broussard's approach.

   Come to think of it, maybe the worst screw ups of DCFS and the worst screw-ups of the Cleveland Plain Dealer aren't so different after all.