Monday, June 13, 2011

Foster care in Los Angeles: Using another tragedy to push a take-the-child-and-run agenda

Presumably, Los Angeles Times reporter Garrett Therolf flunked his tryout as a foreign correspondent* because he’s back doing what he does best – using tragedy to smear efforts to keep families together.

Therolf built his latest story around a letter he obtained from the founder of what in California is known as a Foster Family Agency (FFA). These are private agencies that recruit and train foster parents and oversee foster homes. FFAs are paid for every day they hold children in foster care.

The founder of this FFA, Linda Kontis, sent the letter to Michael Nash, the presiding judge of the Los Angeles Juvenile Court, deploring the reunification of Vyctorya Sandoval with her parents and warning that the reunification was unsafe. The letter was courteous, respectful and, apparently heartfelt.  And Kontis was absolutely right.  A few months later, the child was dead.  The parents are under investigation.

This was, in fact, one of those cases with more “red flags” than a Soviet May Day parade. 

But instead of just seeking a review of the case before it was too late, Kontis also sought to scapegoat all efforts to keep families together.  That, of course, is red meat for Therolf, whose willingness to distort facts to push that same agenda has been documented repeatedly on this Blog and elsewhere.

So that became the theme of Therolf’s story as well.  Once again it was up to Celeste Fremon at WitnessLA to set the record straight.  Writes Fremon:

The implication in the letter and in Therolf’s story is that the Department of Children and Family Services now has such a blindly strong prejudice toward keeping families together that it is endangering children’s lives—in some cases with deadly results.

However the details in the letter, if accurate, paint a picture more of reckless incompetence.  [Emphasis added.]

Exactly.  And in these egregious cases, the real roots of tragedy almost always can be found either in such incompetence or in caseworkers too overloaded with false allegations and trivial cases to investigate any case properly.  Those also almost always are the reasons behind the many cases in which children are needlessly torn from everyone they know and love. But Garrett Therolf refuses to report on those cases.


Further support for Fremon’s take can be found in the data. 

I have emphasized data on entries into care – that is, the number of children taken from their parents over the course of a year – and how those entries increased because of Therolf’s shoddy reporting.  But data also are available on exits from care, that is, the number of children released from foster care over the course of a year.

Rather than a mad rush to reunify, the number of children reunified with their parents actually declined from the year ending October 2008 through the year ending October, 2010, the most recent year for which data are available.  Reunifications that year were at their lowest point since the end of 2006.  (Too see the data Therolf either didn’t include in his story, click here and follow the instructions for creating a table.)

Meanwhile, entries into care increased during the first full year after the Los Angeles County foster-care panic.  And on October 31, 2010, the most recent date for which data are available, the number of children in foster care in Los Angeles County actually increased over three months earlier – the first time that’s happened in Los Angeles in more than a decade.

In short, all the trends are going Garrett Therolf’s way, and yet, somehow, Vyctorya Sandoval still died.  While I think incompetence is the most likely explanation, it’s possible that it was system overload, in which case Vyctoria Sandoval died in part because all the trends are going the way Garrett Therolf wants them to go.

And, of course, Therolf gives readers no inkling of the fact that people who run FFAs have a vested interest in scapegoating efforts to keep families together.

Sadly, that very vested interest might even be why Kontis’ letter didn’t get the attention it deserved.  Since FFAs have a vested interest in opposing reunification in every case, Judge Nash may have thought Kontis was crying wolf.  In fact, her concerns were entirely justified.


Therolf even managed to distort the issue of opening court hearings in these cases.  He wrote that legislation to open the hearings in California was put on hold “partly because of opposition from the union representing many county social workers.”

That’s true, and it’s deplorable – but it’s also grossly incomplete.  The union opposed such legislation in past years and this year as well. But so has “management” in the form of the California Welfare Directors Association.  And this year, it looked like the bill had a good shot at passage anyway - until the California Youth Connection, a group of current and former foster children, opposed it, something discussed in detail in these posts to this Blog.

Yet Therolf doesn’t mention CYC or any group opposing the bill except the union.  Apparently the union has joined family preservation and family reunification on Therolf’s Most Favored Scapegoats list.

*Actually, I have no idea if Therolf flunked a tryout.  It may be that his assignment in Egypt was meant to be strictly temporary all along.  I simply decided to apply Los Angeles Times journalistic standards and “presume” that he failed.  Just as Times Assistant Managing Editor David Lauter declared that “presumably” anyone who doesn’t like their child welfare coverage doesn’t want news organizations to cover “mismanagement or poor execution of policies” and just as Lauter declared that a group criticizing the newspaper’s failed attempt to rate teachers wants information about teacher performance kept secret.

Since I am applying the Times’ own standards here, presumably Garrett Therolf won’t mind a bit.