Thursday, October 28, 2010

UPDATED, OCT. 30: Foster care in South Carolina and New York: The power of getting the story right

          UPDATE: Johnny Smith's daughter will get her father back on Thursday.

  I’ve written a fair amount on this blog about shoddy journalism, the kind that drags down my former profession.  So it’s good to have a chance to write about journalism that elevates that profession – journalism that has just helped reunite a traumatized little girl with her father, Johnny Smith.

            Two years ago, the Albany, N.Y. Times Union ran a five paragraph item on a sexual assault of a three-year-old in Warren County, about 60 miles north.  The last paragraph says “The child is now in foster care.”

            She’s still there.

            And odds are the only reason she’s finally getting out, is because of  Issac Bailey, a tenacious columnist for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina – and his editors, who put the story of this child, and her father, on the front page for six days in a row.

            Why Myrtle Beach, South Carolina?  Because not long before the child was brutally assaulted, the mother had absconded with her, and taken her to Warren County.  And all along, this girl’s father, Johnny Smith of Conway, SC, has been fighting to get her out of foster care and back home.

            Part one of Bailey’s series ends this way:

          “I want to know what I did wrong," Smith said he thought long ago.  He found out later it matters little that the answer to his question is: nothing.

          Originally, the screw-ups were on the South Carolina end.  That state’s Department of Social Services refused to approve the father as a placement for his own daughter  - the daughter he’d raised from birth until she was stolen - because he was poor.  You know all those times child welfare agencies say they never separate families because of poverty?  Six front page stories show that, in this case, that was a lie.

          Normally, a parent at least can challenge such a decision in court.  But not when the case involves more than one state – thanks to an incredibly screwed-up document known as the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children.  As you’ll see in Bailey’s stories, the comments of those in charge of this awful back-alley of child welfare set some kind of record for arrogance even by the standards of child welfare agencies.

          Fortunately, after Bailey started asking tough questions, South Carolina reversed itself.  But meanwhile, in New York, where individual counties run child welfare systems, Warren County was moving full speed toward termination of parental rights.

         Bailey first contacted NCCPR early on in his reporting.  NCCPR put him in touch with the nation’s leading expert on the ICPC, and someone working hard to reform it, Prof. Vivek Sankaran of the University of Michigan Law School Child Advocacy Law Clinic and director of the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy.

         After the stories were published NCCPR contacted journalists whose work would be seen in Warren County, including another very good columnist, Carl Strock of the Daily Gazette in Schenectady.  He wrote an excellent column, available from the newspaper’s paid archive.

         Yesterday, Bailey reports, the court did the right thing.  No later than Christmas, and maybe as soon as tomorrow, Johnny Smith’s daughter should be going home.  And here's the account from today's Times Union.