Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Covering foster care in Los Angeles: Getting precise about precision

The previous post to this Blog compared the way the Los Angeles Times has reported the child welfare story to the Times own Code of Ethics on the matter of sources.  The ethics code also has an admirable section on “precision.” Let’s see how well it’s being followed when the Times covers child welfare:

The ethics code says: We live and work in a media environment suffused with hyperbole. It is The Times’ intention to stand distinctly apart from that world and speak straightforwardly to readers.
But Assistant Managing Editor David Lauter, in his defense of Garrett Therolf, the embattled reporter for the beleaguered Los Angeles Times, writes:   Presumably, in the view of … critics, a news organization that finds evidence of mismanagement or poor execution of policies should say nothing for fear of how a panicked bureaucracy might respond.
The ethics code says: We do not exaggerate sourcing (a single source is a “source,” not “sources”).
But Daniel Heimpel in The Huffington Post cites a Therolf story in which Therolf  says: "Others who have studied the waiver program say that earlier indicators were already suggesting problems."
The "others" were actually one person, Charlie Ferguson …
(And, of course, Ferguson’s comments were taken entirely out of context).
The ethics code says: We do not manufacture, embroider or distort quotes …
But, as Heimpel points out: On October 12th, DCFS Communications Director Nishith Bhatt sent the Times' Therolf an email asking where in [an Office of Independent Review] report [OIR Chief Attorney Mike] Gennaco had used the word "hid." Three minutes later Therolf replied, writing: "In his oral remarks, Gennaco said dozens of cases were inappropriately hidden from the public."

Nowhere in the transcripts from the August 31 Supervisorial hearing in which Gennaco shared his report did he indicate that the Department had hid child deaths. 

Granted, Therolf never quoted Gennaco as using the word “hid” in print.  Rather, he simply wrote that "The county's Office of Independent Review recently found that the department hid dozens of cases from the public," with no attribution to a person or document at OIR at all.  Ultimately he could claim his source is “unpublished reporting.”
The ethics code says: It is unacceptable to hedge an unverified or unverifiable assertion with words such as “arguably” or “perhaps.” Our job is to tell readers what is true, not what might be.
 But what about hedging an unverified assertion with the word “presumably”? (See first item above).  And what about variations on the classic hedge line “raises questions” – like this one from a Therolf story on November 13:
 Among the problems Ploehn faces are questions about her management of a controversial federal and state program known as the Title IV-E waiver.
That’s followed in the next paragraph by a repeat of the out-of-context statistic from the waiver evaluation.
Yes, the Times has quite an admirable section of its Code of Ethics concerning precision. I can’t wait to find out precisely when Therolf and his editors plan to start following it.

Tomorrow:  Why do reporters like Therolf take the easy way out and avoid writing about families whose children are wrongly taken away?  A much better reporter at a much smaller paper on the other side of the country has one possible answer.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Covering foster care in Los Angeles: Does anyone at the L.A. Times read the L.A. Times Code of Ethics?

           One mouse click away from Los Angeles Times Assistant Managing Editor David Lauter’s attempt to defend the Times’ child welfare reporting, an attempt most notable for its immaturity, is the Times’ Code of Ethics.  Here’s the beginning of the section on the use of anonymous sources:

We report in environments – Hollywood and Washington, to name two – where anonymity is routinely sought and casually granted. We stand against that practice and seek to minimize it. We are committed to informing readers as completely as possible; the use of anonymous sources compromises this important value.

These standards are not intended to discourage reporters from cultivating sources who are wary of publicity. Such informants can be invaluable. But the information they provide can often be verified with sources willing to be named, from documents, or both. We should make every effort to obtain such verification.

The code goes on to list a series of strict criteria for using anonymous sources.

           Compare that to this example from Daniel Heimpel’s analysis of Times child welfare reporting in The Huffington Post.  Heimpel discusses a story in which Garrett Therolf, the embattled reporter for the beleaguered L.A. Times, writes that:

"The county's Office of Independent Review recently found that the department [of Children and Family Services] hid dozens of cases from the public," …

            Heimpel points out, however, that

           The report itself was devoid of any indication that the Department had "hid" anything. Rather Mike Gennaco, Chief Attorney at the Office of Independent Review wrote in the report, "that during OIR's review, it received no information to believe that this alleged inconsistent approach in assessing child fatalities between different components of DCFS was either intentional or designed."

            On October 12th, DCFS Communications Director Nishith Bhatt sent the Times' Therolf an email asking where in the report Gennaco had used the word "hid." Three minutes later Therolf replied, writing: "In his oral remarks, Gennaco said dozens of cases were inappropriately hidden from the public."

Nowhere in the transcripts from the August 31 Supervisorial hearing in which Gennaco shared his report did he indicate that the Department had hid child deaths. Even when pressed by Supervisor Zev Yaroslovsky that "there are some reasons to believe that this is not just an accidental disconnect, that the left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing," Gennaco clarified that he had "no evidence" of any intent to suppress information.

            When asked again by Bhatt to produce documentation, Therolf retreated from his email response claiming that Gennaco had said, "dozens of cases were inappropriately hidden from the public," in his "oral statements." Instead, Therolf wrote that Gennaco's purported statement that the Department had "hid" cases was "unpublished reporting."

"Your original message was treated as a formal request for correction," Therolf writes to Bhatt, "and I informed you that my editor and I see no need for correction. As you know, unpublished reporting is protected, and I am unable to share it with you. The story speaks for itself."

On October 14th, Gennaco sent an email to Times editors David Lauter, Megan Garvey and the Reader's Representative demanding a correction over the Times' assertion that he had said the Department "hid dozens of cases from the public."

Despite this request, on Oct 19th the Times published another article stating that Gennaco, "found the department inappropriately hid dozens of cases from public view." But strangely added: "whether the failure to make the files public was intentional or not remains under review." By definition, to hide is to put something out of sight. This renders these two statements contradictory.

Despite the contradictions within the story itself, and two requests to set the record straight, no clarification or correction was ever given.

          So not only does the written record fail to confirm Therolf’s “unpublished reporting” it contradicts Therolf’s claim. 

          The Times ethics guidelines say that when anonymity is granted

Stories should identify sources as completely as possible consistent with the promise of anonymity.  In particular, a source’s point of view and potential biases should be disclosed as fully as possible. 

         Also, it is traditional journalistic practice, when an anonymous source makes a claim, for those disputing the claim also to be quoted so readers can make up their own minds.

         Yet in this case, the claim that "The county's Office of Independent Review recently found that the department [of Children and Family Services] hid dozens of cases from the public" simply was presented as fact.  Readers were not even told, and have not been told in the pages of the Times to this day, that the office’s chief attorney says the OIR makes no such claim.  Lauter does not address this at all in his response, except indirectly here:

          Finally, press spokesmen for DCFS and L.A. County have said that The Times “ignored” requests for corrections on several stories. This, too, is incorrect. All requests by county officials alleging inaccuracies in Times stories have been reviewed. In the few instances in which the stories included inaccurate passages, we have published corrections. In other cases, we have determined that the story was correct, and no correction has been warranted.

          In other words, Lauter is saying, we’re not ignoring you, we just think you should go [expletive] yourself!

Tomorrow, I’ll take a precise look at the section of the Code of Ethics on “precision.” And if you really want a good laugh, compare Times child welfare coverage to the section of the ethics code on “fairness.”

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

After the holiday…

            Here’s what I expect to be posting next week, unless events intervene:

            ● Monday: How does Los Angeles Times child welfare reporting compare to the standards set in the section of the Times’ own Code of Ethics on sources?  (Hint: About as well as you’d expect).

            ● Tuesday: How about the section of the Code of Ethics on “precision”? (About the same).

            ● Wednesday: Why do reporters like the Times’ Garrett Therolf take the easy way out and avoid writing about families whose children were wrongly taken away?  A much better reporter at a much smaller paper on the other side of the country has one possible answer.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Foster care in Los Angeles: A mature response from the L.A. Times editorial board

UPDATE, NOV. 22: Today brings another smart post from Celeste Freemon at WitnessLA and a story about the child welfare waiver debate from the Los Angeles Daily News that takes a refreshing approach: It reports both sides.

Now here’s something you don’t see every day: a smart sensible analysis of what’s gone wrong at the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services – from the Los Angeles Times.  It comes not from the news side, but rather the editorial page.

Today’s editorial zeros-in on the real problems: poor management and obsessive secrecy.  In fact, it bears some resemblance to this post on this Blog about why DCFS Director Trish Ploehn has to go and this one about a report highlighting some of the agency’s real problems.

After carefully sorting the wheat from the chaff, and the facts from the hype, in more than a year of Times news stories, and, apparently going beyond the stories to read some of the underlying documents, the Times editorial concludes:

Steady discipline, better deployment of personnel, clear directives, focused training and an unwavering commitment to public accountability are the methods by which DCFS will recover. The county owes that much to the children in its care.

The contrast is striking, both in tone and substance, with the immature response to critics of Times reporting from David Lauter, the Times’ assistant managing editor for state and local reporting.


Most notable is what the editorial does not say.

● The editorial does not target the county’s waiver from federal funding restrictions; in fact, it doesn’t mention the waiver at all, even though that’s become a favorite scapegoat of Garrett Therolf, the embattled reporter for the beleaguered Times.

● The editorial refuses to buy into Therolf’s hype about child abuse deaths.  The editorial reminds readers that over the past decade, staffing at DCFS has gone up and the number of children under the agency’s supervision has gone down, and then notes that

over that same period, even by DCFS' calculations, the number of children who have died as a result of abuse or neglect has remained steady, at about 20 a year, a discouraging trend that suggests an agency that, if not in crisis, is not making headway toward fulfilling its most fundamental responsibility.

In one respect that’s actually more credit than DCFS is going to get from me – I think, at the moment, the agency is in crisis, partly because of Ploehn’s mismanagement and penchant for secrecy and partly because of the foster-care panic set off by Therolf’s stories.

But looking at the big picture I think there actually has been headway.  For starters, fatalities are an extremely poor way to measure progress for a reason for which we all should be grateful: though each is the worst kind of tragedy, thank God that, in a county with more than 2.5 million residents under age 18, there are few enough of them for the number to rise or fall due to random chance.  That also helps explain why this report from a Texas think tank found that nothing agencies like DCFS do will change those numbers – but more prevention, more efforts to curb poverty and more efforts to curb teenage pregnancy will.  The report also has a good discussion of the limits of trying to measure changes in fatality numbers.

But better measures of safety, such as overall reabuse of children, also have improved over the past decade – Therolf simply hasn’t reported that fact.  (To see these data, click here and follow the instructions for creating a table.)


If a child welfare agency can significantly reduce foster care without safety getting worse that is, in fact, headway – because thousands of children have been spared the enormous harm of foster care itself. 

Think of it as like having two drugs to treat cancer. Both work, say, 80 percent of the time and fail the other 20 percent.  But one has terrible toxic side effects, the other doesn’t.  Which do you choose?

Los Angeles County is attaining at least the same level of safety it obtained a decade ago.  That’s not nearly good enough, but at least it’s getting those results while exposing fewer children to the toxic side effects of foster care.  

The real tragedy is that even that progress may be undone by the foster care panic.

The one place where I take issue with the editorial concerns part of the paragraph that follows the one about fatalities.  According to the editorial:

Moreover, though child deaths are the most tragic consequence of DCFS ineffectiveness, the county abounds with stories of children left in squalid conditions, inexplicably reunited with dangerous parents rather than remaining in the hands of caring foster parents, or otherwise mistreated. 

That’s true.  But the county also abounds with stories of children taken from safe homes, or homes that could be made safe with the right kinds of help, only to suffer terrible trauma in foster care.

The Times just refuses to tell those stories.

Starting tomorrow [UPDATE: Make that next week]: Comparing L.A. Times child welfare coverage to its own standards

The Los Angeles Times has an admirable Code of Ethics.  Tomorrow and Tuesday I’ll compare the code to the actual Times coverage of child welfare. 

Well, that was the original plan.  But today's Times editorial, the topic of a new post to this Blog, deserves more attention during the week, and that would push any other posts very close to Thanksgiving.  So I expect to post about the code of ethics starting a week from tomorrow.

But why wait for me?  You might want to compare Times coverage of child welfare to the code yourself - see especially the sections on "Sources" "Precision" and "Fairness" - and decide for yourself if the reporting of Garrett Therolf, the embattled reporter for the beleaguered Los Angeles Times, measures up.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Just when I thought it was safe to stop writing about L.A....

...The Los Angeles Times responds to NCCPR and other critics of its child welfare coverage.  NCCPR's response to the response is here.  There's also a great response to the Times from Celeste Fremon at WitnessLA  UPDATE, 9:44PM: LAWeekly's story includes a useful reminder that when the Times defends its story about fatality numbers, the defense applies to the revised version, after editors rewrote parts of reporter Garrett Therolf's original, offering no explanation for the change.  The LAWeekly story also notes that the tone of the Times response was unusual.  And the controversy makes its national debut as Romanesko - the first place many journalists turn for their daily fix of media news - posts a link to the Times response.

The Post I'd planned for today, on National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day, is below.

Adoption of children from foster care: National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day, 2010

UPDATE, NOV. 20: For every rule, an exception.  Check out how a good reporter for The Miami Herald found a new angle and did the adoption day story the right way.

This is part of a post that originally appeared in 2008. Since the event is annual, I plan to reprint the post each year as well, with updates as appropriate.  

 How do we know what's really important to a person, or to a corporation, or to an institution?

    One way, of course, is how we choose to spend money, and I've written before about how child welfare agencies do that. But there's also another good measure: what we choose to celebrate.

    The father who has memorized the schedule of his favorite football team but always forgets his children's birthdays is sending a message. So, too, is the child welfare agency which claims that its first priority when a child is taken away is to reunify that child with her or his birth parents, with adoption as the second choice, but chooses to celebrate only the supposed second choice.

    In general, adoption is the right second choice; for some children it is the right first choice. Adoption can be, both literally and figuratively, a life saver for a child; it should be one important component of any good child welfare system; and there is nothing wrong with celebrating it as one avenue to permanence.

But if the true intent of child welfare systems is revealed by what they celebrate, then one of the most noble concepts in child welfare, giving children permanence, has been perverted into a synonym for adoption and only adoption. Reunification gets lip service until everyone in the system, from frontline workers, to agency chiefs to top judges can get what they really want: children taken from poor people and placed with middle class families; families like their own. The real agenda of most child welfare systems, and most of the people in them, is made apparent every year on National Adoption Day; or, as it should properly be called, National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day.


    The day actually is celebrated on different dates in different states, but it's always in November and most places will hold their celebrations tomorrow. You know the drill. Open the court on a Saturday, bring in cake and balloons, finalize foster-child adoptions en masse – and reinforce every stereotype about how the system rescues children from horrible birth parents and places them with vastly superior adoptive parents. And, of course, get a guaranteed puff piece in the local newspaper, with no tough questions. This one, from the St. Petersburg Times in 2008, is typical:

In general, a courthouse is not a happy place. People go there to get divorced, to fight eviction, to file for bankruptcy, to watch loved ones sent away to prison. You see a lot of suffering, and you hear it in the cries and cursing that echo through the hallways. Forty children, sugar-laden with sheet cake and bouncing around a lobby with balloons, made Friday an exception at the county courthouse in Tampa. As part of a National Adoption Day celebration, they were legally united with "forever families," mothers and fathers giving them a one-way ticket out of the foster care system. …

The treacle aside, it's almost certainly inaccurate. Given what we know about adoption "disruption" for some of the children, it may well be round trip. And, as is discussed below, stories like this one make such tragedies, and others, a little more likely.

    If nothing else, this is the day when almost all the people in almost every child welfare system in the country, from frontline workers to agency chiefs, show their true colors. This is the day that makes them genuinely happy. Yet all these same players will turn on a dime and blather on about how their first priority is reunification. Well, if that's your first priority, why aren't you celebrating it? Why did so many fewer communities take part in the first National Reunification Day in 2009? Why is there no happiness expressed over doing what you yourselves claim is priority #1?  Why don't reporters note that, when a child finally gets to return to the birth mother she loves after months or years needlessly separated, that, too, can bring some happiness to a courtroom?

    Clearly, reunification is not priority #1. Priority #1 is carrying out those middle-class rescue fantasies – taking children from people like them and placing them with people like us; people of the same race and, especially the same income level, as your average caseworker, judge, lawyer – or reporter. (No newspaper took the whole "people like us" thing as literally as Foster's Daily Democrat and its sister papers in New Hampshire. In 2008, a four story 4,900-word Sunday package of glop and goo about adoption day included a sidebar in which the saintly foster mother –who kept complaining about not getting enough taxpayer money for her adoptions – was none other than the newspaper's managing editor!)

For almost everyone working in the system, the truth is that keeping families together is the broccoli on the child welfare menu and adoption is the dessert. National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day is another way to bring out the dessert tray before anyone's eaten their broccoli.

    The exceptions are few and far between. The first to recognize the hypocrisy was Marc Cherna, long-time reform-minded leader of the human services agency in Allegheny County, Pa. He was the first to create an annual celebration of reunified families and push it at least as hard as the adoption celebration. After NCCPR started spreading the word about this, a few – very few – other communities followed suit. New York City has done it for the past few years (though their effort is tarnished by other statements and actions undercutting their own reforms). New Jersey has done it at least twice, and the Miami region of the Florida Department of Children and Families is doing it regularly.

This year, the Parents’ Representation Project of the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law sponsored the first National Reunification Day – but few places took part, compared to the hundreds of Adoption Day events.


    It's not just hypocritical, it's also dangerous.

    When the only kind of "permanence" that receives any reward is adoption, the message to the frontlines is obvious: Don't try to reunify, rush to terminate parental rights. And that's exactly what happens. In Kentucky it led to a scandal, as the Lexington Herald-Leader exposed "quick trigger adoptions" with workers rushing to terminate parental rights in cases where children may never have needed to be taken from their parents. The only difference between Kentucky and the rest of the nation is, in Kentucky, the Herald-Leader was paying attention. That caught the attention of NBC Nightly News which offered an excellent overview of the Kentucky scandal.

But there are other dangers as well. Year after year, terminations of parental rights outrun actual adoptions. The result: A generation of legal orphans with no ties to their parents and little or no hope of adoption – with or without cake and balloons - either. The combination of these non-financial incentives, plus the adoption bounties paid by the federal government goes a long way to explain why the number of children who "age out" of foster care each year with no home at all has soared 41 percent since 1998.

And then there is the matter of where these children wind up.

Another reason for the mad rush to adoption-at-all-costs is the fact that getting those adoption numbers up is the one time a child welfare agency is guaranteed good press. Everyone knows the reporters will write a story like the one quoted above and not ask any tough questions about whether the children really needed to be taken, and how carefully the adoptive parents were checked out. And then, the same journalists will wonder how it could happen that children like Ricky Holland and Timothy Boss in Michigan and others across the country could be murdered by adoptive parents - in effect, adopted to death.

Of course abuse in adoptive homes is rare – just like abuse in birth parent homes. The bigger problem is adoption "disruption," when agencies rush children into a bad match and the parents change their minds. No one really knows how often that happens – child welfare systems almost never ask questions to which they don't want to know the answers. Some rough estimates are in NCCPR's Issue Paper on adoption.

But whether the problem is legal orphans, disruption or, rarely, severe, even fatal abuse in adoptive homes, it's all encouraged by adoption bounties and the adoption day mentality, both of which promote quick-and-dirty, slipshod placements. Even Marcia Lowry, who runs the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" has said that "… Congress should realize that far too many states … when they do, for example, raise their adoption numbers, are doing so by including many clearly inadequate families … along with the genuinely committed, loving families who want to make a home for these children, just to 'succeed' by boosting their numbers." That her own lawsuit settlements have been known to push states the same way is a contradiction someone might want to ask her about someday.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Covering foster care in Los Angeles: The Empire Strikes Back

Los Angeles Times Assistant Managing Editor David Lauter has written a response to criticism of Times child welfare coverage.

I posted a version of the comment below to the Times website:

How sad that in his desperate attempt to defend the indefensible, David Lauter misrepresents what my organization and others who have criticized the Times actually believe. 

Mr. Lauter falsely claims that “presumably” we don’t want news organizations to cover “mismanagement or poor execution of policies.”  In fact, NCCPR repeatedly has called for more coverage of all child welfare failings.  On our website, we have an entire section linking to examples of the finest such journalism and once or twice a week we send a child welfare news story we think more people should know about to more than 300 reporters around the country, including several at the Times.   Once, we even sent one written by Garrett Therolf.  (If you’d like to be added to the list Mr. Lauter, just send me an e-mail.)

And it should be obvious that, if we really wanted to ignore mismanagement or poor execution of policies, we wouldn’t be urging the Board of Supervisors to replace DCFS Director Trish Ploehn.

Rather, our objection is to what the Times distorts and what the Times leaves out entirely – such as almost never telling the stories of children wrongfully removed from their homes and the harm that does to children.  Indeed, the Times even has refused to report the actual data on the increase in entries into care, data NCCPR obtained using a California Public Records Act request and which we’ve made available here

Particularly instructive is Mr. Lauter’s use of the word “presumably.” When a journalist really wants to know what someone “says” or “wants” the usual approach is to call that person up (or send an e-mail) and ask.  This is commonly known as “reporting” and is generally considered a superior approach to “presuming.”

Mr. Lauter also evades the issue when he claims that:

Another assertion raised by Heimpel and others is that The Times has claimed that the county’s policy regarding when to take children away from parents, often referred to as the Title IV-E waiver, had “caused” an increase in re-abuse.  The Times has not made any such claim.

That’s true.  Instead, reporter Garrett Therolf has strongly implied cause-and-effect in at least three stories, while never once mentioning that the same document that includes the statistic on re-abuse specifically says it is impossible to draw any such conclusion.  Why is the Times afraid to tell readers that simple fact?  Nor does the Times discuss the profound financial incentive for misuse and overuse of foster care that existed before the waiver.

Mr. Lauter himself makes similar use of loaded language when he claims that some people “have a long-standing position in favor of keeping children out of foster care -- even if that means leaving them with abusive parents…”  That, of course, conjures up images of sending children to their doom.  In fact, what my organization favors is not taking away children from parents whose poverty has been confused with neglect, and not taking away children when they can remain safely in their own homes if the parents get the right kinds of help.  And the reason my organization favors this approach is because, for the overwhelming majority of children, it is *safer* than foster care.  The overwhelming evidence for this is documented at www.nccpr.org

●Concerning the fatality data, the broadening of the definition of fatalities also has made the determination of whether a fatality is the result of maltreatment or an accident far more subjective.  Therefore, even with the same definition, it is harder to know if the increase is real.

The Times also has failed to report that, if the increase is real, one possible cause is the foster-care panic which overloads workers, leaving them less time to find children in real danger.

●As for the rest, readers need simply compare Mr. Lauter’s comments to what Daniel Heimpel found when he re-reported the story for The Huffington Post  to see that Mr. Lauter has ignored many of the most serious problems with Therolf’s stories – such as the people who say the Times has been putting words in their mouths. 

Covering foster care in Los Angeles: It’s all starting to sound a lot like “The Wire”


            High on most people’s short lists of best television dramas of all time is HBO’s series The Wire, by former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon.

            Much of the action in the final season revolves around a fictional (but not all that fictional) Baltimore Sun, a newspaper reeling from budget cuts and desperate for a high-profile story or series to win the paper a Pulitzer Prize.  In real life, Simon has referred to this as “Pulitzer-sniffing.”  

           Given their state of mind, it’s no wonder the top editors portrayed in The Wire are very happy with the work of reporter “Scott Templeton.”  Templeton is genuinely talented, with a gift for narrative writing.  But he distorts facts to suit his narrative and then starts embellishing, inventing quotes and sometimes entire people.

            The city editor is suspicious, but his bosses are in love with Templeton’s narrative style and, with visions of Pulitzers dancing in their heads, they back the reporter – whose answer, whenever confronted by questions about the veracity of his stories, is to declare “It’s in my notes!”

            Garrett Therolf of the Los Angeles Times also is a talented writer working for a paper that’s been devastated by budget cuts and appears to be doing a lot of Pulitzer-sniffing.  I’ve been thinking about the similarities between The Wire and Therolf’s child welfare reporting ever since the first time he had to pull back on a story.  The parallels became clearer recently when his immediate superiors dialed back on another of Therolf’s stories.  But, like their counterparts at the fictional version of the Baltimore Sun, there is nothing to indicate that the higher-ups at the Times have any problems at all with Therolf’s work – certainly not if the response to the latest accusations, described below, is any indication.

            But I didn’t draw the analogy then for one reason: No one had suggested that Garrett Therolf had made anything up.  (And it should be emphasized that even now, none of the accusations concerning Therolf rise to anywhere near what was done by the fictional Templeton, or even what was alleged in a real-life case at the Sun which partially inspired the Templeton storyline.)

            So even though leaving out of a story information that contradicts a reporter’s master narrative, as Therolf has done repeatedly, thereby leaving an impression 180 degrees from the truth,  is almost as bad as an outright lie, and even though one could even make a case that doing things like taking the evaluation of the Los Angeles child welfare waiver totally out of context actually is worse than what now has been alleged, I didn’t bring up The Wire.


            But the latest incidents to come to light take the questions about Therolf’s reporting beyond just sins of omission.

            Those incidents, and in particular the failure to correct errors, are discussed in Daniel Heimpel’s carefully-documented column in The Huffington Post.

            The first example concerns Deanne Tilton Durfee, who heads L.A.'s Interagency Council on Abuse and Neglect, serves on the county's child abuse death review team, and heads the National Center for Child Fatality Review.

            Heimpel writes:

            In an Oct. 19 blog, reporter Garrett Therolf wrote, "Tilton-Durfee, executive director of the interagency council said [two members of the County Board of] supervisors had misrepresented her organization's figures."

On October 21st Tilton Durfee sent a correction request to the Times' Reader Representative stating that she had not said the Board had misrepresented her organization's figures when Therolf had called about the numbers on the 19th. Shortly after that initial conversation with Therolf, Tilton Durfee reviewed the tally and found that a typographical error was to blame. At which point she called Therolf to clear up the confusion, according to her correction request.

"I phoned Mr. Therolf and told him this in the mid afternoon, which I presume was before his deadline," Tilton Durfee wrote.
Despite this forewarning, the blog went out at 5:41 PM. No clarification or correction was ever given.
Heimpel writes that the second case concerns a claim in a Therolf story that:
"The county's Office of Independent Review recently found that the department hid dozens of cases from the public," …
The report itself was devoid of any indication that the Department had "hid" anything. Rather Mike Gennaco, Chief Attorney at the Office of Independent Review wrote in the report, "that during OIR's review, it received no information to believe that this alleged inconsistent approach in assessing child fatalities between different components of DCFS was either intentional or designed."
On October 12th, DCFS Communications Director Nishith Bhatt sent the Times' Therolf an email asking where in the report Gennaco had used the word "hid." Three minutes later Therolf replied, writing: "In his oral remarks, Gennaco said dozens of cases were inappropriately hidden from the public."

Nowhere in the transcripts from the August 31 Supervisorial hearing in which Gennaco shared his report did he indicate that the Department had hid child deaths. …  

                Both these examples may differ from the plot in The Wire in another respect: They could be simply honest errors – albeit errors that happen to promote Therolf’s point of view.   But in both cases, Therolf and his editors have refused to correct the errors.
                Consider what happened when Therolf was pressed in the second example.  Heimpel writes:
When asked again by Bhatt to produce documentation, Therolf retreated from his email response claiming that Gennaco had said, "dozens of cases were inappropriately hidden from the public," in his "oral statements." Instead. Therolf wrote that Gennaco's purported statement that the Department had "hid" cases was "unpublished reporting."
In other words: It’s in his notes.
TOMORROW: A day off from L.A. (I hope) to update our annual post about National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day.

Another LA Blog weighs in

Another Los Angeles Blog, LAObserved, reports today on the “ever-louder chorus of complaints about [Garrett Therolf’s] coverage from people in the field.”  Editor Kevin Roderick, a former Times reporter and metro editor, takes no stand on the controversy, but notes that “I haven't seen the Times editors or Readers Representative (or Therolf) directly address the allegations as yet.

The Readers’ Representative did respond to my request that the Times correct the false impression left by Therolf’s stories about the evaluation of the county’s child welfare waiver.  She said no.  I expect to publish her response, in full, on Monday.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

More tomorrow, here, and on KPFK Radio

            I’m going to be a guest tomrrow on Margaret Prescod’s morning program on KPFK Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles (90.7FM) and northern San Diego County (93.7FM) sometime between 7 and 8am PT.

            And on this Blog tomorrow, some thoughts about how this whole mess in Los Angeles resembles nothing so much as the final season of The Wire.

Witness LA blasts Therolf's child welfare reporting

The lead item on the very smart blog WitnessLA.com, a project of the Justice and Journalism Fund, blasts  Garrett Therolf's misreporting of the  child welfare story - and the failure of his editors at the Los Angeles Times to correct it.

Citing Daniel Heimpel's column in The Huffington Post, WitnessLA editor Celeste Fremon writes that

Heimpel’s research and reporting-on-the-reporting—including re-interviewing people quoted by the Times— is much too solid and detailed to ignore. ...

Listen: I realize that all of these articles-–Daniel Heimpel’s included—can seem like so much inside baseball to those unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the foster care politics.
But much is at stake when the state’s largest newspaper starts using some high profile tragedies to push—without adequate factual basis and no visible thoughtful consideration—for a change in policy that would result in more kids snatched unnecessarily from non-abusive families into the trauma that is foster care.
“In the name of helping children,” said Heimpel when we talked on Tuesday about the Times’ coverage, ” it may very well result in a lot more children to be hurt.”

Hmmm.  First The Huffington Post, then LA Weekly, now WitnessLA.  Maybe it's time to start calling Garrett Therolf the embattled reporter for the beleaguered Los Angeles Times 

Foster care in Los Angeles: The real lessons from the waiver evaluation


            On Monday I wrote about how Los Angeles Times reporter Garrett Therolf misrepresented an evaluation of Los Angeles County’s waiver from federal child welfare funding restrictions.

            Therolf falsely implied that the evaluation suggested the waiver had led to an increase in reabuse of children left in their own homes.  In fact, the evaluation makes no such claim  - and more recent data call into question whether there was such an increase.

          (There's more on Therolf's misreading of the evaluation, and some even more serious blunders in Therolf's reporting, in Daniel Heimpel's excellent column in The Huffington Post, and in this summary from the alternative LA Weekly.)

            But that doesn’t mean all is well with child welfare in Los Angeles – obviously, the system is in chaos, though the primary reason for that is the foster-care panic triggered by Therolf’s sloppy reporting.  But the evaluation also makes clear that the waiver isn’t working as well as it should. 

            What I take from the evaluation – and unlike Therolf, I want to make clear that these are my conclusions, not those of the evaluation’s authors – is that while the waiver has not compromised safety, it also hasn’t done nearly enough to curb the misuse and overuse of foster care in Los Angeles County.


            One theme runs through all of the waiver’s limits: The harm done by California’s powerful foster care-industrial complex, the network of private agencies that runs most of the group homes and institutions in California.  Since this kind of care is not only the worst for children but also the most expensive, these agencies scarf up an enormous amount of money.  But their power does not extend only to congregate care.  Many counties, including Los Angeles, subcontract a large part of the job of recruiting and overseeing foster parents to private Foster Family Agencies (FFAs).

            All of these private agencies have one thing in common: a profound incentive to encourage governments to take away more children and hold them in foster care for as long as possible.  That’s because they are paid for each day they hold a child in foster care.  If they don’t get enough referrals and don’t hold the children in care long enough, they’re out of business. 

            Their greed, apparently, is insatiable.  Even as virtually every other service in California was forced to endure severe budget cuts (including, of course, the kinds of help needed to keep children out of foster care in the first place) the group homes, institutions and FFAs sued to win themselves a rate increase

About a decade ago, when one California institution, now called EMQ Families First in San Jose, had a crisis of conscience, faced up to the fact that their program was failing and totally redesigned it to drastically reduce institutionalization, its biggest problem was not revolutionizing its approach to helping children.  Its biggest problem was what EMQ’s own CEO at the time called “the group home industry” which had the power to stop the state from funding this better approach.

            When Illinois changed these incentives for that sate’s private agencies, their foster care population dropped from over 50,000 in the late 1990s to under 16,000 today.  But California hasn’t made such a change.  So private agencies remain a powerful barrier to any reform effort.


            In Los Angeles, former Department of Children and Family Services director David Sanders had success in winning over almost every other constituency as he planned for and designed the waiver. But the evaluation reminds us, at one point in surprisingly blunt terms, that earlier initiatives had antagonized the group home industry and it remained hostile.  According to the evaluation:

The LACDCFS adoption of the [Annie E. Casey Foundation’s] Family-to-Family principles and its push to decrease the reliance on group homes by using them less frequently as a placement option and shortening the length of time a child spends in a group home threatens the core livelihood of many service providers. Understandably, the group homes, foster family agencies and their association were concerned.   The [waiver] is intended to further those goals and as a result, the provider community was wary of the plan being developed.  [Emphasis added.]

            The evaluation also reminds us that, from the beginning, the waiver plan was far too modest (again my conclusion, not that of the researchers).  DCFS never expected to free up more than a relatively small amount of money to transfer into additional services to keep families together.  So relatively few additional children would be kept out of foster care.  And that, in fact, is what happened.  In the time since the waiver began, on July 1, 2007, through April 1, 2010, the decline in the number of children in foster care in Los Angeles on any given day hasn’t been much greater than it was during the same number of months before the waiver.  And entries into care – the number of children taken from their parents over the course of a year, actually increased – thanks to the foster-care panic started by Therolf’s stories.

            This explains why Los Angeles County still takes away children at one of the highest rates of all large metropolitan areas.

            The evaluation report also reminds us that one of the reasons the amount available for better options was so low was that in 2006, after planning for the waiver was well underway, the private agencies persuaded the legislature to grant them a rate increase (the one they just went to court to get is in addition to this one).  So even as Los Angeles County sought to reduce the number of placements, each placement became more expensive.

            But the evaluation report also reveals there has been more than enough change to alarm the private agencies.

When children are placed in substitute care, placement with a relative – kinship care – almost always is the least detrimental alternative.  Study after study has found that kinship care placements are more stable, better for children’s well-being and, most important, safer than what should properly be called “stranger care.”*

            This is a success story for the waiver, or, as it’s called in the evaluation, the Capped Allocation Plan (CAP).  According to the evaluation:

One year into the CAP, the use of Foster Family Agencies was reduced to 40.6%, down from 54.1% at the start of the CAP. By the second year of the CAP, the use of Foster Family Agencies increased slightly again to make up 42.8% of all first placements. Relative homes made up 24.5% of all placements up from 14.4% at the start of the CAP.

            So at every step in the process, and at every turn, the FFAs, group homes and institutions have worked to undercut the waiver – and even the limited progress so far makes clear why.  As the evaluation itself points out, a reduction in out-of-home care “threatens the core livelihood of many service providers.”  
Given that kind of opposition from a powerful foster care-industrial complex, and given the agency’s poor leadership after Sanders left, it’s remarkable that DCFS made any progress at all.


            One of the things that makes private child welfare agencies so powerful is that, in a system more secret than the CIA, they have access to information – they have the case files, they know about the screw-ups and, if they so choose, they can leak them – selectively, of course.

In other cities over the years, it’s been pretty easy to see the fingerprints of private agencies paid for holding children in foster care on news accounts using horror stories to attack family preservation.

The agencies’ vested interest, combined with the free ride they’ve gotten, as a group, from Therolf, raises questions about whether some people at some private agencies might be doing the same thing now in Los Angeles.  I’m certainly not saying this is happening, I’m merely saying these circumstances raise questions about whether it’s happening.

But I’ll tell you what, Garrett: I’ll stop using that kind of phrasing to disguise speculation as reporting – if you will, too.

*-For a discussion of some of this research, and citations, see: Mark Testa, et. al., Family Ties: Supporting Permanence for Children in Safe and Stable Foster Care With Relatives and Other Caregivers, University of Illinois School of Social Work, Children and Family Research Center, October, 2004, and Generations United, Time for Reform: Support Relatives in Providing Foster Care and Permanent Homes for Children, March 2007,  See also, Marc A. Winokur, et. al, “Matched Comparison of Children in Kinship Care and Foster Care on Child Welfare Outcomes,” Familiesin Society, Volume 89, No. 3, 2008, and  David M. Rubin et. al., “Impact of Kinship Care on Behavioral Well-being for Children in Out-of-Home Care,Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 162(6):550-556. 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Check out this column from Daniel Heimpel of Fostering Media Connections on Garrett Therolf's child welfare coverage in the LA Times.  Heimpel is a former journalist, based in Los Angeles, who now runs Fostering Media Connections, a foster care reform group.  Here's how Heimpel sums up Therolf's stories:

one finds the upward trend in child deaths built on contested, murky numbers, requests from sources to correct errors disregarded and the theory explaining the suggested jump based in conjecture, its only anchor a data point taken widely out of context. The Times' myopic, misleading and reckless reporting has sparked a misinformed panic, posing a very real threat to many of Los Angeles' most vulnerable children.

And see the alternative LA Weekly's take on Heimpel's column here.

Foster care in Los Angeles: Why Trish Ploehn must go (and who should replace her)

            It’s been obvious for some time that Trish Ploehn’s days as the embattled director of the beleaguered Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (or, if you prefer, the beleaguered director of the embattled … etc.) are numbered.

            If Ploehn is fired it increases the odds of L.A. Times reporter Garrett Therolf winning awards for his lousy journalism (it will be item one on the entry form under “What did the stories accomplish?”).  If Ploehn is fired it may well lead to a suck-up piece about the wonderful job Therolf and the Times have done by the Times’ media reporter James Rainey (notwithstanding Rainey’s own conflict of interest – more than a decade ago, he screwed up the child welfare beat in much the same way as Therolf).  If Ploehn is fired it’s going to take time to find a good replacement - the pool of available talent is thin. And if Ploehn is fired it will contribute to the reputation of the top child welfare job in L.A. as a revolving door.

In spite of all that, it’s essential that the Board of Supervisors replace Trish Ploehn. Because you can’t run one of the largest child welfare agencies in America from a bunker.

            A Therolf trademark is briefly opening the door to those holding other points of view when he thinks he’s writing what amounts to an obituary for what they stand for.  Thus, the one and only time the excellent grassroots group for families who have lost children to Ploehn’s agency, DCFS-Give Us Back Our Children, was allowed a word in edgewise in a Therolf story was when he was writing about Ploehn saying she was going to stop trying to reduce the number of children in foster care – which seems to be one of Therolf’s  biggest goals.

            Similarly, with Ploehn now plainly on the way out, Donna Myrow, who publishes a newspaper written by foster youth, was allowed to point out in a Therolf story that children known-to-the- system actually have died even while other people were running DCFS:

 [Myrow] said Ploehn has worked under a microscope in ways her predecessors did not because new disclosure laws have made it easier for the public to see the department's worst cases.  "The problems we are reading about are not new, they are just coming to the public's attention in ways they did not before," said Myrow.


            That law is, in fact, crucial to understanding everything that’s happened since.  By opening up records only in death or near death cases, it plays right into the hands of the Garrett Therolfs of journalism.  Since more children live in their own homes than in foster homes, more children are going to die in their own homes than in foster homes – even though the rate of abuse in foster care is far higher than the rate in the general population.  And since everything else, all those poverty-confused-with-neglect cases and other needless removals of children, remains secret, the law reinforces the impression that child welfare systems err in only one direction – leaving children in dangerous homes.

            The fatality story also becomes the easiest story to do – child welfare’s equivalent of  low-hanging fruit.  For a reporter whose beat is crime, or government or human services, there may be no faster way to journalism awards and career advancement (or at least making sure you’re spared in the next round of layoffs) than to do “the fatality series.” And once you have the most compelling possible victim – a dead child – you need a simple villain.  So the easiest scapegoat is the one that is simple, obvious – and wrong: efforts to keep families together. 

            So it is true that no matter what Trish Ploehn did, no matter how open she was about her agency’s failings and no matter how much information she provided, Garrett Therolf would have distorted it and used it selectively to reinforce his own “master narrative.”

            There are several ways one can deal with that:

            ● Press the legislature to broaden the law so the agency can release information about all cases, not just the fatalities.

            ● Follow the lead of New York, Arizona, and at least two other states and pass legislation allowing DCFS and its counterparts around the state to comment on any case that becomes public in any way.

            ● Press the legislature to open all court hearings to the press and the public so better reporters than Garrett Therolf can walk in anytime and see how the system typically functions in typical cases.

            ● Release all information that existing law allows and interpret all ambiguity in favor of openness – and then seek out journalists who are not determined to slant every story to fit their master narrative. 

Yes, the Times remains by far the loudest media voice, but the Los Angeles Daily News consistently has provided context the Times leaves out, the smart Blog Witnessla.com also has added perspective  missing from the Times news pages, and LA Weekly pointed out that Therolf’s own editors had to dial back one of his recent storiesLA Observed, a Blog that closely follows media in the region hasn’t weighed in yet, but it’s another place where an alternative to Therolf’s “master narrative” might find a fair hearing.  All that media combined can provide some degree of check-and-balance on the Times – provided DCFS itself proves it can be trusted by being absolutely open and candid about its own failings.


            Instead, Ploehn dived into the bunker.  For starters, she began trying to stop the release of information on the death cases – taking advantage of the fact that the law allowing their release is badly written and full of loopholes.  Of course that only led to the information being leaked.  Then Ploehn compounded the problem by launching an investigation into the leaks.  Nothing – nothing – makes a newspaper angrier than someone trying to find and punish their sources.  And the investigation itself took on a Keystone Kops flavor when DCFS workers allegedly conducted an illegal search of the purse of Darlene McDade-White, the agency’s own lead internal affairs investigator, apparently believing she might be the leaker.  They found no evidence of that.

            When Ploehn wasn’t stonewalling, she was dissembling.  Trish Ploehn has managed to answer the same basic question with responses that boil down to “yes” “no” and “maybe” – all in the same day.

            All of this is morally reprehensible.  The public has a right to know how a government agency charged with protecting its vulnerable citizens is functioning.  Period.  The fact that on rare occasions, a journalist will behave reprehensibly himself and distort the information does not repeal that right.

            It’s also remarkably stupid.   Every leak of a case file, or even part of a file, becomes another story.  Every attempt to suppress information becomes another story.  Every attempt to find out who is leaking information becomes another story.  If Garrett Therolf really does manage to win his Pulitzer Prize he ought to share the prize money with Trish Ploehn, who made it all possible.

            This also means that Ploehn’s replacement needs to send three clear messages from day one:

            ●We’re coming out of the bunker.  We will provide all the information we can as quickly and as accurately as we can, and we will interpret any ambiguity in law in favor of openness, even as we push to change laws to allow for more disclosure.

            ●Garrett Therolf will not be allowed to dictate child welfare policy in Los Angeles County.  We will not be intimidated by his distortion and misrepresentation of our efforts to keep children safely in their own homes.  Indeed, the data clearly show that these efforts have been inadequate – Los Angeles County still takes away too many children - and we will redouble those efforts.  We will do that because for the overwhelming majority of children the overwhelming majority of the time, family preservation is the safer option.

            ● Frontline workers will be held accountable for laziness, incompetence and stupidity.  But they will not be scapegoated for honest error – and we will not respond to every new headline with a blizzard of pointless new policies, making their tough jobs even tougher.


            As for who might be able to send such a message, there is one person who could come in on an interim basis and truly hit the ground running – and it’s someone who might be available on an interim basis at no charge.  I’ll repeat a suggestion I first made last February:

Bring back David Sanders.

Sanders was Ploehn's immediate predecessor. He is the only DCFS director in recent years to leave the job voluntarily, and the only one who could cope with the County Board of Supervisors. He initiated the waiver from federal child welfare financing limits that Therolf has been trying so hard to smear, so he has a strong interest in seeing that it works.

He also made some mistakes. Entries into care increased during his tenure, and he brought in an approach to deciding who to throw into foster care called Structured Decision Making which has backfired (See our material on Los Angeles County child welfare for details).

But the fact that he pushed for the waiver suggests he saw the problems and was moving to deal with them, when he left to become Executive Vice President of Systems Improvement at Casey Family Programs (CFP), the multi-billion dollar foundation that loves fancy titles and spent more than 51 hours on this Blog and NCCPR's website last year - and another three-and-a-half hours just yesterday.

A few years ago CFP essentially vacuumed up many of the best and the brightest in child welfare (like David Sanders) around the country (and when they ran out of good people who would accept their offers, they started scraping the middle of the barrel, too.) It's time that Casey gave something back, by "lending" Sanders to Los Angeles, while continuing to pay his salary, so Sanders can help fix the mess that Trish Ploehn did so much to create.

If you’re reading this Dr. Sanders (and, given how much time people at CFP spend on this Blog, the odds are pretty good) you should know there is one improvement over when you had the job before: The Board of Supervisors is behaving itself remarkably well.  In spite of all the pressure – and how easy it would be to get great press by pandering to Therolf - only one of the five Supervisors, Zev Yaroslavsky, has been doing that.  So, given that they already know and respect you, it just might be possible to clean up this mess.

Tomorrow: The real lessons from the waiver evaluation