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

●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.