Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Child welfare in LA: Of course children are sleeping in a conference room – that’s what foster care panic does

    Buried at the bottom of a Los Angeles Times story yesterday is the revelation that, since January 2009, at least 31 children taken from their parents have been housed for more than one night in a conference room converted into a makeshift "shelter."

    That shouldn't surprise anyone. When, all of a sudden, you're taking away 16 percent more children for no good reason, you're going to have trouble finding places for all of them, and some of them are going to wind up dumped in a converted office. It's been a standard feature of foster-care panics for decades. And if the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services doesn't get a grip, fast, it may get a whole lot worse.

This is from a Chicago Tribune story about what it was like during the foster-care panic that swept through Illinois starting in 1993:

A surly teenager with a bad attitude struts and shouts swear words a few yards away from the abused and neglected little ones, so young they can barely tell you their names ... 16-year-old Harry is boasting: 'I stole 50 cars this week!' A few yards away is 5-year-old Michael, so very scared and trying with all his might not to cry. 'I'm the big brother,' Michael explains, gently stroking the hair of Christopher, 4, who gulps heavy, sleepy breaths and sucks his thumb on a cot in a corner. ... When a visitor tried to shake the little boy's hand, he threw his arms around her,
starving for a hug ...
"I want my mom,' Michael said ...

    But, as I said, the information about the makeshift shelter in Los Angeles was way at the bottom of the story. Reporter Garrett Therolf was far more interested in the question of whether DCFS has been hiding the true number of child abuse deaths in the county. (The answer: almost certainly yes. A claim by DCFS Director Trish Ploehn that she was unaware of the problems leading to the failure to disclose some of the cases ranks right up there with Michael Brown, five years ago, saying he was unaware of how badly New Orleans had been hit by Hurricane Katrina.)

    It's a very important story – but so is the latest consequence of the foster-care panic that Therolf himself did so much to start. Yet by today, there was another story on the fatality numbers, while all mention of the children in the conference room had disappeared.

    And even on the matter of the fatality numbers, Therolf missed one of the most important points: The fact that it's so easy to manipulate the numbers is one more reason why you can't tell whether a child welfare system is getting better or worse based on the number of fatalities.

    Like the current panic in Los Angeles, the one in Illinois in 1993 was largely a newspaper-fueled panic. I wrote about it at the time for Chicago's alternative weekly, the Chicago Reader. At the time, I asked one of the state's leading child advocates, the lawyer who brought a major class-action lawsuit against the child welfare system, if the Tribune's coverage had left the Illinois system better or worse. His reply: "Unquestionably, worse."

    Fortunately, both the Illinois child welfare agency and the Chicago Tribune learned from their mistakes (and one of those two entities probably would even admit it). Today, Illinois takes away children at one of the lowest rates in the country, the rate-of-removal in greater Chicago is the lowest in America's large metropolitan areas, and independent court-appointed monitors, named as a result of that class-action lawsuit, say that the reforms in Illinois have made children safer.

There is no evidence yet of a similar learning curve in Los Angeles.