Friday, October 29, 2010

Foster care in Los Angeles: The L.A. Times Sleaze machine goes into overdrive

            Los Angeles Times reporter Garrett (I really really want that Pulitzer) Therolf has a story about another case in which the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services left a child in a dangerous home.

            If the story is correct (and given Therolf’s penchant for selective reporting, one never knows) then DCFS workers closed a case on the family after a shoddy, superficial investigation.  Then (and this we know for sure) the family moved to another county where the same child was discovered tortured in ways that would tax the imagination of Augusto Pinochet or Saddam Hussein.

            As usual with a Therolf story, the problem is what was left out when he pretended to put the horror story in some kind of context.

            Therolf claims: “More than 65 children have died of abuse or neglect since the beginning of 2008 after being referred to the department, according to county statistics. The rate of such deaths has increased over that period, and county officials have acknowledged that many involved case management errors.”

            Therolf neglects to mention: As a recent Times op ed column by two county supervisors points out, we don’t really know if deaths have increased or not.  

            If they have increased, it’s almost certainly because of the foster-care panic set off, in large measure, by Therolf’s own reporting.

            Therolf claims: "Based on a review of county data, a researcher hired by the state found that, since 2007, children left by the department in their homes after an investigation increasingly have experienced abuse again within a year."

            Therolf neglects to mention that even with this one-year rise, the same measure of reabuse, using the same time frame, still is more than 20 percent lower than it was in 1998, when the county was taking away even more children than it’s taking now and had vastly more children trapped in foster care.  

           Therolf neglects to mention that when the same measure is used with the standard time frame used across the country by the federal government, the reabuse rate is continuing to decline. 

           Therolf neglects to mention that Los Angeles County continues to tear apart families at one of the highest rates among large metropolitan areas.  When you do that, caseworkers tend to be overloaded and make horrible mistakes – in all directions.

            As usual, it was up to Celeste Fremon of to provide some of the context that Therolf left out. (The full item is the fourth one down when you click here).   She writes:

At one end of the spectrum you have horrors like this one. At the other end, you have kids who should absolutely positively not be taken away from their parents, but are—and suffer dreadfully for it—because somebody decides that it’s a swell idea to yank them. I’ve seen it happen repeatedly. Frankly, in most of the latter cases, law enforcement is involved and the entry of DCFS has to do with someone in the household—not necessarily the parent— being arrested on a drug charge. No abuse or neglect required.
Will someone at the County please explain this insane discrepancy? I would find it helpful. [Emphasis in original.]

            While it would indeed be nice if someone at DCFS were candid enough to explain that they are so overloaded with false allegations and trivial cases they are bound to screw up in all directions, explaining insane discrepancies in the workings of government is really the job of great big newspapers with lots of reporters (and, relatively speaking, the L.A. Times still qualifies).

            Garrett Therolf and his colleagues know full well that the errors go in all directions.
For example, for months, the grassroots group DCFS-Give Us Back Our Children has been trying to get the Times to report on a horrific case involving a grandmother so beloved by DCFS that they were pressuring her to adopt the baby grandchild in her care.  But when grandma asked too many questions, and became so upset at the pressure that she had a seizure, DCFS seized the baby – even though other relatives were ready to take the baby immediately.

             DCFS Give Us Back Our Children has documented the emotional damage inflicted on the child by being needlessly placed in foster care, before she was returned to her family.

            The Times simply has chosen to ignore this case, and the other cases which, as Fremon points out, “happen repeatedly.”

            And the Times has chosen to ignore the extent to which the errors are related: The more time an agency wastes on wrongful removal, the less time it has to find children in real danger.