Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Foster care in Los Angeles: Two columns Garrett Therolf almost certainly won’t understand (even though they’re in his own newspaper)

The columns are by Sandy Banks, a longtime columnist at the Los Angeles Times, and one of the more astute writers about child welfare nationwide.  They’re about what I call the “in between” cases, in which the parent certainly isn’t perfect, but where the child welfare agency has made everything far worse by consigning the children to needless foster care.

The first column sets up the story of the mother, Shanell Walton, but it’s the second column that really zeros in on the harm done by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.

The only thing that sets this case apart from thousands of others is a woman named Babs Greyhosky.  Greyhosky long ago became a mentor and more to Walton.  And Greyhosky, a television writer, is three things Walton is not: white, middle-class and media-savvy.  She knows how to get attention.

Banks writes that

Greyhosky said her "middle-class friends can't believe that life can be such a soap opera. They think it's 'those people' … and their eyes glaze over. But people are people. Shanell's not the only woman making a bad choice in a man. If they punish her for that, then what about Maria Shriver?"
The irony, of course, is that Greyhosky’s description fits perfectly far too many journalists, like NPR editor Andrea DeLeon who literally dismissed such parents as “these people.”  And, of course, Garrett Therolf.

In all his years covering child welfare at the Times, Therolf has never covered a story like this on his own initiative. (When one played out in front of him at a Board of Supervisors meeting, some years ago, he reported it, and did a good job.  But that was a long time ago.)  Instead, as we’ve documented in multiple posts to this Blog, particularly this one, Therolf chose to fuel a foster-care panic – a sharp, sudden surge in removals of children – through his hyped, distorted, one-sided coverage of DCFS.

Indeed, the fear Therolf has spread throughout DCFS may well be one reason why Ms. Walton’s children still are in foster care.

But what really sets these columns apart, and makes them courageous as well as insightful, is what Sandy Banks writes, toward the end, about herself:

 How many of us might end up in the system if social workers showed up at the house on the wrong day — when the laundry's piled up, the kitchen reeks, you're yelling at the kids over the TV.

I thought about that as I cleaned my house, from top to bottom, this weekend. I recalled my own near-misses as a frazzled single mother of three: The baby-sitter arrested, with my toddlers in tow, with a phony prescription at the drugstore. The black eye my daughter suffered in a trampoline fall, while I was in Vegas and a teenage neighbor was in charge.

I saw the chances I took, the choices I made, the sitters I trusted, and the men I dated. And even with my safety nets — caring neighbors, trustworthy friends, a well-paying job — I didn't always come out looking so good.

It’s a good thing Garrett Therolf wasn’t covering child welfare for the Los Angeles Times back then.  He probably would have written a story, dripping with outrage, demanding to know why DCFS did not take away Sandy Banks’ children.
DCFS isn’t the only child welfare agency to screw up this way, of course.  Stop by here tomorrow to see – literally – what the child protective services agency in Texas did to one little girl.