Monday, August 29, 2011

Foster care in Arizona: The failed journalism of Laurie Roberts (Part one)

A columnist for the state’s largest newspaper apparently believes tearing apart 70 percent more families just isn’t enough.

UPDATE, OCTOBER 19: Laurie Roberts proved me wrong today - not about Arizona child welfare, but about Laurie Roberts. See this post to see what I mean.

In a post on August 18, I wrote about the perennial state of foster care panic in the State of Arizona.  I wrote about how, four days after taking office in 2003, in the wake of the disclosure of a high-profile tragedy, then-Gov. Janet Napolitano told caseworkers to just take away the kids “and we’ll sort it out later.” 

More than seven years later, they still haven’t sorted it out - the panic never stopped.  From 2002 through 2010, a time when nationwide, the number of children torn from their parents over the course of a year declined 15 percent, in Arizona removals soared 70 percent, with no end in sight.  (For a detailed discussion of child welfare in Arizona, see the full report we issued in 2007.) 

As I noted on Aug. 18, that’s partly because whenever there were signs the panic might abate, someone at the Arizona Republic in Phoenix and /or the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson would respond to a horror story by pouring on the hype and hysteria and start it up again.

The someone at the Republic almost always is columnist Laurie Roberts.  At some point in the weeks after a horror story, Roberts rewrites the same column.   There are minor variations, but the formula is simple:

● Regurgitate in pornographic detail the most gruesome facts unearthed by other journalists.           
●Make one phone call. (Maybe.)     
●Condemn the state for being so stingy about spending on child protective services (she’s right about that one).
­● Condemn CPS for supposedly putting “parents rights” ahead of child safety.
● Hit the send button.

That's been the basic formula for at least 38 columns from when the panic began in 2003 through June of this year.

The one beneficiary of this has been Laurie Roberts.  It fills column space and it’s won her at least two journalism awards.

The columns serve only to help scare frontline caseworkers into tearing apart more families year after year while doing absolutely nothing to make children safer – and possibly putting them at greater risk.

Given her track record, it was no surprise when, less than a week after that August 18 NCCPR blog post, Laurie Roberts regurgitated The Column  for the 39th time, in response to a horror story and then offered up iteration number 40 two days ago.  In the Aug. 24 column, Roberts writes:

[We] are left to wonder why no one came to Jacob Gibson’s rescue.   And why so few reports of abuse in this state are substantiated by the CPS -- 8 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, compared with 22 percent nationwide.

Arizona law likely has something to do with that. Despite attempts in recent years to better protect children, the rights of a parent to a second (and third and fourth and fifth) chance still trump the right of a little boy to be safe, and that is an outrage.

Of course Roberts doesn’t actually cite a section of Arizona law that might cause this alleged problem and compare it to the norm in other states.  That would involve actual reporting – and it might spoil the master narrative she’s been trying to peddle year after year, even as more and more families are separated while more and more children keep dying. 

And, it would appear, Roberts has forgotten about the times when The Column celebrated the fact that the law had, in fact, been changed in 2003 to declare “that a child's right to be safe trumps a parent's right to a second chance.” (That is the Sept. 16, 2006 version of that Roberts’ favorite, as opposed to the Aug. 24, 2011 version quoted two paragraphs above.  I wonder if she has it programmed into a keyboard shortcut?)

In fact, Arizona law likely has nothing to do with lowering the state’s rate of substantiating maltreatment.  And the allegedly low substantiation rate has done nothing to curb the state’s ever-escalating rate of child removal.  The real answers can be found right in the same document from which Roberts got that misleading eight percent figure.

What Roberts either doesn’t understand or chooses to ignore is that screening child abuse reports is a two-stage process.  First, a hotline operator decides whether to accept a report for investigation, then the investigator decides whether or not it’s substantiated.

Nationwide, on average, 38.1 percent of reports were screened out in 2009, the most recent year for which data are available.  But in Arizona, only 2.8 percent of reports were screened out.  The other 97.2 percent cascade down on overwhelmed caseworkers, and every one of those allegations has to be investigated.  So Arizona caseworkers have to spin their wheels investigating proportionately more false reports and trivial cases than their counterparts in almost every other state.

If Arizona screened out initial referrals as the same rate as the national average, its substantiation rate would rise to 13.6 percent.

But aha! Roberts almost certainly would say, that’s still lower than the national average.  CPS must be coddling all those bad parents they love so much even as they care not a whit when innocent children die!

Nope.  Because in Arizona, probably to a greater degree than any other state, a decision that a child is a victim of “substantiated” child abuse is not necessary before the child is removed from the home.


Still another set of tables in the same federal document lists the number of child abuse “victims” and “non-victims” removed from the home.   This voluntary survey is not as reliable as the figure for entries into care states are required to provide for this other report, but it is the only survey that draws a distinction between victims and non-victims.

As you would expect, the number of victims taken from their parents almost always far exceeds the number of non-victims.  In fact, in only two states providing relatively reliable data* were more non-victims taken.  One was California where the number of non-victims removed was slightly higher than the number of victims.  The other was Arizona, where the number of non-victims taken was nearly triple the number of victims.

In other words, whatever technical criteria Arizona uses to label a case substantiated are irrelevant to its haste in tearing apart families.

As for Roberts’ same-old same-old about the supposed triumph of parents’ rights in Arizona, another set of data show that her claim is absurd.  I’ve already noted the soaring rate of child removal in Arizona.  But there’s more.

Arizona has long taken away children at a rate well above the rate in systems widely-known as, relatively speaking, models for keeping children safe; states such as Illinois and Alabama - the latter a state with particular lessons for Arizona.  But Arizona’s perennial panic now has reached the point where it takes away children at a rate above the national average – even when the state’s high rate of child poverty is factored in, which is the fairest way to compare.  (When you compare to total child population, Arizona looks even worse.)

Again, even when rates of child poverty are factored in, Arizona now takes away proportionately more children that big-spending states such as New Jersey, Ohio, and Maryland and even those liberal bulwarks California and New York.

That’s hardly what one would expect from a state where “parents rights” are triumphant.

But here’s something you would expect from a state in the midst of a foster-care panic: An increase in deaths of children previously known to the child welfare agency.   That’s exactly what has happened in Arizona.

That story tomorrow, along with the perils of “despair mongering,” the “can’t-do” spirit of the state’s opinion leaders, and how Laurie Roberts will respond to these posts, if at all.

*Kansas submitted data to the voluntary survey claiming that it removed 158 victims and 982 non-victims for a total of 1,140.  But in the separate report it’s required to submit to the federal government, Kansas said it removed a total of 3,163 children, suggesting that the voluntary survey data it submitted are way off.  (In no state do the data from these two surveys match, but most states, including Arizona, come much closer.) In addition, even in the mandatory reports, Kansas fudges its figures on entries into care, as is explained in detail in our report on Kansas child welfare.