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.