Thursday, December 2, 2010

Covering foster care: Overriding the “Veto of Silence”

            Yesterday, I wrote about some of the reasons why so many reporters won’t even look into a story about parents who say their children were taken from them needlessly.  And I wrote about an exception: Issac Bailey, metro columnist for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

            Bailey is not one of those sit-on-your-ass-and-pontificate columnists; content, week after week, to regurgitate what reporters found and add some declarations of outrage.  (In all of journalism is there anything easier to do than spit out the “boy do I hate child abuse!” column?)

            Bailey started out as a reporter and he’s still a reporter.  Bailey meets people where they live, seeks out all sides, and pours through documents.

            He spent months researching and reporting a very complex case, involving an impoverished father whose common-law wife ran off one day with their child.  She left him a taunting message on MySpace declaring he’d never find his daughter.  And he didn’t – until authorities in Warren County, New York told him she’d been placed in foster care after the children of the mother’s new boyfriend brutally abused her.

            That’s almost certainly where that little girl would be now, in foster care with strangers, had Bailey not exposed years of bungling by two states, in stories that, to the credit of his editors, the Sun News featured on its front page for six days in a row.  (The entire series is available by clicking here and scrolling to the middle of the page.)  With some encouragement from NCCPR, papers near Warren County picked up on the story, and it’s clear from this account in the Albany Times Union that the county, which at one point had been pushing for termination of parental rights, had been feeling the heat:

“[The lawyer for Warren county] told the judge his agency was simply following the law in the legal process, despite media coverage he considered critical.

"I'm not here to debate the press," the judge told him.”

           We know this, of course, because in New York, unlike South Carolina and most other states, these hearings are open to the press and the public.  With journalists watching, the county reversed itself, the judge ruled for the family and last week, this little girl celebrated Thanksgiving back home in South Carolina with her father. 

            In another column, Bailey performed a service that was almost as valuable: He said out loud what many reporters say only to their colleagues in the newsroom, or sometimes won’t even admit to themselves, about why these stories so often never get written:
We send out social workers to contend with some of the most difficult situations imaginable. And we cut back on their training in times of economic stress. We don't pay them well even when the economy is booming. And we tend to over-react when they make what we perceive as a mistake, particularly when a child dies while under the department's supervision.

I understand why, because I feel the same pang of uncertainty every time I look into a case. Every time I've written about a family involved with DSS and Family Court over the past half dozen years, I've done background checks and gone over court and police documents and visited them in their homes and fielded calls from their supporters and detractors, just like social workers do, seeking to weed through rumor and fact, never knowing how things are going to turn out.

Because there is no way of knowing. And that's why it is easier to not deal with them, to not write about them, to ignore the plight of such families. And it is why studies have consistently shown that after a highly-publicized child death, the number of kids taken into DSS custody skyrockets.

Because for many of us it is more comfortable to pretend we play no role in the dysfunction of the system - through our silence and apathy and irrational reactions - just as it is more comfortable for those within the system to believe it is better to err on the side of placing kids in a system that has chewed up and spit out too many children rather than leave them in homes - and provide real assistance - on the chance that they might - might - come to a different kind of harm, the kind that brings more public scrutiny.

And because of that vicious cycle, kids who would otherwise do well, even with imperfect parents in less-than-ideal living situations, are taken into foster care, flooding the system, making it harder for social workers to have a manageable load of cases, as well as increasing the likelihood that children who really need extreme intervention won't receive it.[Emphasis added].

            Bailey’s tolerance of ambiguity is important for another reason.  The overwhelming majority of people who lose children to the system are nothing like the sadists and brutes whose cases, rightly, make headlines.  But they’re not all pure as the driven snow, either.  They are, like most of us, flawed human beings who’ve made mistakes; they fall somewhere between the extremes, neither all victim nor all villain.  The real issue is whether their children should suffer for that by being consigned to the chaos of foster care.

            Most journalists don’t want to hear that.  I don’t remember where I saw it, but I recall a producer for NBC’s Dateline allegedly saying that program’s formula boils down to three words: “Victim, villain, confrontation.”  The real world of child welfare generally isn’t like that – neither is the real world, period.

            But in those cases that really do fit the formula, middle-class families are more likely to be able to prove it, one more reason why, as I noted yesterday,  on those rare cases when wrongful removal does make the front page, or at least the front page of the metro section, it’s usually one of those very rare times that the long arm of child protective services reaches into the middle class: a story like this one or this one.


            Although the general public doesn’t know about this, the people who run child welfare agencies do.  After all, their p.r. people, or “flaks” to use the common term among journalists, usually are former reporters.
So they know how to hide behind confidentiality laws in ways that magnify a reporter’s fears. They’ll say something like: “Oh, there’s really so much more to the case, and we wish we could tell you – really we do – but we just can’t; confidentiality, you know.”  I’ve even seen this used in states, like New York, where the law says public child welfare agencies can comment – but few reporters know about it.

             Of course reporters know that if the child welfare agency really had anything more, they’d almost certainly leak it; but given the doubts about parents to begin with and the fear of looking stupid, this veto of silence often kills stories.  And, of course, every time reporters fail to override this veto and go with the story anyway, it reinforces the agency’s determination to oppose any effort to change the confidentiality laws.
Indeed, I have a theory that every time one of these stories is killed, somewhere an agency flak gets his wings. 

            Issac Bailey’s willingness to take on stories that might not advance his own career stands out in other ways as well.

          Another reporter I know, in some ways a very good one, once admitted to me that she would never write a story about a really good program or improvements in a system because she was afraid of looking like a fool if things weren’t as good as she thought.  Very little will cause more loss of “face” for a reporter than coming across as naïve.  But doing right by readers sometimes means risking looking dumb.

         We need more reporters with Issac Bailey’s willingness to dig into the stories others won’t – and with his tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. 

Tomorrow: Back to Los Angeles and the role of the L.A. Times "Readers' Representative."