Monday, January 3, 2011

Another LA foster care story ignored by the LA Times

Sadly, we must begin the New Year picking up where we left off – with still another story of child welfare tragedy ignored by the Los Angeles Times and possibly caused in part by the Los Angeles Times.

On August 20, 2009 I was in Los Angeles, holding a news conference along with the excellent local grassroots group DCFS-Give Us Back Our Children.  We warned that bad journalism, (particularly the bad journalism of Garrett Therolf, the embattled reporter for the beleaguered Los Angeles Times) was likely to set off a foster-care panic – a sharp sudden surge in children needlessly taken from their parents.  (The material we released that day is on our website here).

As we would confirm by filing our own California Public Records Act request, not only was there such a panic, one of the worst months of the panic was August, 2009, with the number of children taken from their parents that month 20 percent higher than the same month the previous year.

Even as we issued the warning, on August 20, 2009, a little boy named Eamon was becoming a likely victim of that panic.

Pasadena Weekly told the story of Eamon, his sister, and their mother Mary O’Connor with rare insight and compassion last month.  That story, and a heartbreaking follow-up,  make clear that Eamon was born with three strikes against him.  His mother is poor.  She is, as the lawyer who handled an eviction case for her puts it, “a little odd” – but not in any way that indicated the slightest danger to her son.  And strike three for Eamon was being born when caseworkers for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services were especially paranoid about being scapegoated by Therolf for leaving a child in her or his own home and having something go wrong. 


Actually, make it four strikes.  Ms. O’Connor flunked what a Los Angeles lawyer described to me decades ago as “the attitude test.”  She didn’t know how to put on an act of groveling before DCFS workers, begging forgiveness (not that there is any evidence that there was anything for which she needed to be forgiven) and promising to jump through every hoop set before her.  Instead, she fought back in ways even more likely to anger a judge and scare a DCFS worker.

None of which changes one basic fact: There was no problem in Ms. O’Connor’s home that couldn’t have been solved with help to cope with the concrete problems of poverty and the kind of mental health care that affluent families easily can buy. 

There are other factors that may be at play here as well.

It appears that Eamon was put on the adoption track very quickly – placed a middle-class couple of “UCLA graduates” who can’t wait to adopt the boy.  California law may be the most draconian in the nation when it comes to allowing this, letting DCFS to rush to seek termination for infants much sooner than required by federal law.   The alternative weekly in San Jose did a good story about this more than a decade ago.


This case also illustrates the harm of a pernicious practice known as “concurrent planning,” in which child welfare agency workers supposedly do their very best to reunite a child with his birth parents while, at the very same time, placing the child with parents desperate to adopt.  This is like placing before a small child a bowl of broccoli and a bowl of ice cream and trusting that he will eat them both.

Similarly, middle class foster parents desperate to adopt a child are told: “now remember, your first job is to help work to reunite this family, but if by some chance you fail at that, then you get what you really want, a poor person’s child for your very own.”  As one such parent in New Jersey once told The New York Times, in real life the “mantra” for such parents is: “I'm on a plane to South America if they think they're getting this baby back.''

This also may be an example of the one and only time that that the racism that pervades child welfare may work in reverse.  Black families are more likely to be investigated, more likely to have cases substantiated and more likely to have children taken away than white families.  But then Black children tend to stay in foster care longer.

It’s a matter of supply and demand.  White infants are very rare in foster care systems, especially large urban systems – and caseworkers know that this is the one time when families will be lining up to adopt.

I’m not suggesting that DCFS is engaged in “baby-selling” or other similar allegations one sometimes hears.   I’m not even suggesting that DCFS is doing it for the bounty the agency will receive from the federal government, somewhere between $4,000 and $12,000, if the adoption exceeds a baseline number set by a federal formula.  (Funny, Garrett Therolf never writes about that financial incentive). Rather, I’m suggesting that human nature is at play, the common, albeit illegal “comparison shopping” that occurs when middle-class professionals have power over poor people -  as in workers thinking “This baby is so cute.  He’d be so much better off with this nice couple who are desperate for a child.”


What also may be at play is the way the bias against birth parents often extends to their extended families. I say that because there is another middle-class professional couple that stands ready to adopt Eamon: Mary O’Connor’s own parents.  But they’ve been turned down.  Nobody knows why (DCFS can get away with keeping all that secret).  In addition to bias against birth parents’ families another possibility is simply the fact that the grandparents live in Illinois, and interstate placements are a huge hassle.

As Celeste Fremon writes in discussing the case on WitnessLA today:

while is no doubt true that the UCLA grads can give Eamon far more in the way of opportunities than Mary O’Connor likely ever can, let us hope we are not yet parceling out other people’s children on that basis.

And now, as Pasadena Weekly explains, the same fate may befall Eamon’s sister.  That’s partly because, as O’Connor acknowledges, she “panicked.”  When parents panic the system may punish their children forever.  When caseworkers panic and rush to tear apart families, the workers suffer no consequences at all.  (Contrary to what workers claim, they are not “damned if they do and damned if they don’t.”  When it comes to taking away children, they’re only damned if they don’t.)

What is happening to Mary O’Connor and her children could have happened in any child welfare system at any time.  But it was more likely to happen in Los Angeles County in August, 2009.  No wonder the Los Angeles Times is ignoring the story.  Actually, that’s just as well – were the Times news side to get interested, it would probably be only to trash Mary O’Connor for every mistake she’s ever made and rejoice over the loss of her children.

WEDNESDAY: A post to the website of The Washington Post illustrates the perils of paying foster parents too much.