Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Covering foster care: Writing the stories others ignore

            It happens all the time after a reporter does “the fatality series” – the story or series about deaths of children “known to the system.”

            The reporter is deluged with calls and e-mails from parents who feel their children were wrongfully taken from them.  Naively, they assume that the reporter really cares about children and now that he’s seen how often the system fails, “he’s bound to want to know about my story.”

            The reporter never responds.  Within the newsroom he and his colleagues may well treat such requests with contempt.

            So the stories of children needlessly taken from everyone they know and love and consigned to the chaos of foster care are far less likely to be told.

            There are a lot of reasons.


            For one thing, after immersing oneself in the gruesome details of what a tiny minority of sadistic, brutal parents do to their children, the reporter is likely to be on a “righteous indignation high” – the last thing he wants to hear is someone saying “yes, but…” – least of all someone he’s sure really is a child abuser.

            But there are other reasons as well.  Child welfare may be the only beat where the story most likely to advance a reporter’s career also is the easiest to do.

            The “fatality series” is the low-hanging fruit of the child welfare beat, because the death of a child “known to the system” is the time when it’s hardest for child welfare systems to hide their failings behind confidentiality laws.

            Some years ago, I read with disgust a “how I got that story” piece by a reporter who had done one of these series – complete with all the usual false assumptions and scapegoating.  He advised any journalist starting out covering child welfare to begin with “the fatality series” – precisely because it’s the easiest to do.

            It’s also the quickest, easiest way to glory on the child welfare beat.

            For the same reason most parents are good parents – we’re “hard wired” to respond with horror and revulsion to a child being hurt – these usually are high-impact series, guaranteed to win journalism awards.  Unfortunately the impact often is a foster-care panic which makes everything worse (and no, David Lauter, assistant managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, that does not mean reporters shouldn’t cover child abuse fatalities, it means they should cover them better.)  The “fatality series” also leaves the impression that the only mistake child welfare agencies make is to leave children in dangerous homes - because so many reporters won’t do the harder stories.

            Oh, and one other thing: The professionals in the child welfare system and foster and adoptive parents usually are of the same race and class as most reporters; they’re people journalists naturally are comfortable with.  Most birth parents who lose children to foster care are not.

            Similarly, almost every middle-class professional has a friend or colleague who has adopted a child, few journalists personally know anyone, aside from, very rarely, story subjects, who has had a child returned to her or him from foster care.

            This helps explain why, 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.


            Fortunately, there are exceptions.

            For several years, Issac J. Bailey, metro columnist for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C. has reported on stories other journalists ignore.  Some of his columns have been collected in a book.

            Bailey is Black.  He was one of eleven children raised in rural South Carolina.  He is also, in his own words “a proud product of handouts.”  He writes:

The government provided me with food stamps and free lunches and big, long rectangular boxes of cheese and powdered milk and bags of beans and Pell grants and health insurance to nourish my body and mind in ways my family's precarious financial predicament did not allow.

           So his background is closer to that of a lot of parents caught up in the system than that of many reporters.

          A background like Bailey’s is by no means a prerequisite for getting the child welfare story right – some outstanding child welfare reporting has been done by journalists from backgrounds every bit as privileged as that of reporters prone to taking the cheapest of shots.   Conversely, there are plenty of poor people who, while escaping from poverty, developed amnesia.  That’s even more true if their “handouts” were the kind that have no stigma, like the G.I. Bill or an FHA-backed home loan, or the mortgage interest tax deduction.

         But I’m guessing that a background like Issac Bailey’s sometimes may make a reporter more willing to listen.

         But there’s something else: Bailey also just works harder than many reporters.

Tomorrow: How that hard work helped reunite a daughter with her father – and what probably is the most important reason why so many reporters won’t write a story like that.