Friday, November 12, 2010

Foster care in Los Angeles: That’s why it’s called a PANIC

            Garrett (What suit should I wear to the Pulitzer ceremony?) Therolf has a story in the Los Angeles Times today about a report from the office of the county’s Chief Executive concerning the problems at the county Department of Children and Family Services.

            The story serves one useful purpose: It contradicts Therolf’s own earlier stories that attempt to blame all department failings on efforts to keep families together.  On the contrary, this report makes clear that the problems are rooted in the foster-care panic set off by Therolf’s own misreporting of child welfare.

            The report paints a picture of an agency plunged into chaos by a top management so hell-bent on knee-jerk responses to whatever is in the newspaper that it should change its name from DCFS to DCYA.

            Frontline workers are drowning not just in cases, but in policies – so many cascading down on them that workers can’t possibly keep track of them, much less follow them all.  In the story, a spokeswoman for the caseworkers’ union aptly calls it an “out-of-control policy machine.”  The problem is compounded by so many automated e-mail “reminders” involving so many deadlines that the reminders lose their impact – except, in all likelihood, to add an extra element of stress to an already extremely difficult job.  (One can only imagine what it’s like if these constant reminders are accompanied by some kind of special beep on the caseworker’s computer when they arrive).

            The new policies almost always involve more work per case, without any discretion concerning which cases need whatever is called for by the new policies and which do not.  So everyone falls behind and, you may be sure, there is informal corner-cutting going on that no one’s going to know about until it leads to the next tragedy.

            It is to the workers’ great credit that in spite of all this the report found that there has been a “significant reduction” in a backlog of cases open longer than 60 days.  That deserved to be mentioned farther up than the end of the ninth paragraph of the story; but, of course, one wouldn’t expect that kind of basic fairness from Therolf.

            There also is another classic Therolf touch:  

            The only individual case Therolf cites involves DCFS failing to act concerning children living in what is allegedly a squalid home.  But common sense suggests that any agency operating in this kind of chaos is going to make mistakes in all directions at once.  Yes, they will leave more children in danger – they also will take more children needlessly from homes that are safe or could be made safe with the right kinds of help.  This is one reason why, all over the country,  foster-care panics have been followed by increases in deaths of children “known to the system.”

            Indeed, in the story itself, the union spokeswoman notes that different DCFS offices apply the new standards and policies in different ways (the report itself notes that training hasn’t kept up with all the new policies, so regional administrators have to figure them out for themselves).  In other words, a child who might be removed from the home by a caseworker from office A will be left in the home by a caseworker from office B – again, setting the stage for errors in all directions.

           The report itself also suffers from one crucial flaw: The only people to whom the authors spoke are people who work for DCFS.  Imagine what they might find out if they actually spoke to some of the families whose children were needlessly taken by the agency. 

          But then, Garrett Therolf can’t be bothered doing that, either.