Tuesday, August 30, 2011

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

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.

Yesterday’s post to this blog discussed the harm to Arizona’s vulnerable children caused by the state’s perennial foster care panic, and how that panic is kept alive in part by Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts.

Since the panic began in 2003, Roberts has written at least 40 columns (or, more accurately, the same basic column 40 times) in an attempt to pressure caseworkers to tear apart more families.

Those columns contributed to the fact that, since she began this crusade, the number of children torn from their parents in Arizona has soared by 70 percent, even as nationwide, the number has declined by 15 percent.

Yet just this past Saturday, Roberts herself said her efforts to make children safer have utterly failed.   So it should be obvious that taking away more children and shoveling them into foster care is not the answer. 

One of the real reasons the tragedies continue actually was cited in Roberts’ column on Aug. 24, when she wrote:

…[C]caseworkers say privately that they can’t possibly do the job with workloads that exceed the recommended level by 60 percent or more.

But Roberts is either oblivious to the contradiction in her own column – scapegoating family preservation and then admitting workers don’t have time to make good decisions - or simply doesn’t care.

In part the overload almost certainly is because of budget cuts by the legislature and Gov. Jan Brewer, just as Roberts says. 

(Oh, wait: Perhaps because she had a chance to see a preview of these Blog posts when I sent excerpts to NCCPR’s list of Arizona journalists on Friday, she backed away from the one part of her writing that makes any sense on Saturday.  Now she says:

But budget cuts are neither an excuse nor the whole story. I've been watching and writing about kids like Jacob Gibson for 20 years, during times when caseloads were half of what they are now.)

In fact, the rest of the story is the part Roberts keeps leaving out: Children in real danger are missed because caseworkers are overloaded with all those hotline calls that never got screened out (the way they would have been screened out in other states, something discussed in detail in the previous post).  And in part it’s because of all the time workers have wasted taking children needlessly from everyone they know and love because they are terrified of things like being the subject of Roberts’ 41st iteration of The Column – and the likely response from their boss.

Indeed, it appears that their current boss, Clarence Carter, director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security, is big on scapegoating frontline workers – and Roberts loves it.  She writes:

Carter has vowed … to hold workers accountable if they blew it, to fix systems if they aren't working and to change the culture, in the hope that the ashes of no more children will be swept under that well-worn rug over at the CPS.  He promised much the same thing after 23-month-old Janie Buelna died in March while the CPS should have been watching.

 The caseworker and her supervisor were fired, and the supervisor's boss was reassigned.   And so, I take Carter at his word, that he will sort out what happened here and, if warranted, hold people accountable.

So Roberts approves of Carter sending a message to the frontlines that boils down to: Take away all the kids you want and, though the kids will suffer terribly, your job will be safe.  Leave one child home and have something go wrong and you’re fired.  That is, of course, the perfect formula for continuing the foster-care panic.

Roberts also is pleased with another Carter initiative:

Effective immediately, he said, all active cases in which there have been three or more reports of abuse will be reviewed monthly by senior management -- something that already is supposed to be happening at the lower supervisory levels.
In other words, if you want to be sure your attempt to use the Arizona child abuse hotline to harass your ex-spouse or neighbor, or anyone else is effective, don’t forget to make that third call.


The heart of the problem with all this, of course, is that foster care panics can cost children’s lives.   In one city and state after another, such panics have done nothing to reduce child abuse deaths – often those deaths have increased.   Arizona is a classic example.

According to the annual reports from Arizona Child Fatality Review Program,  in 2002, the last year before the Arizona Foster Care Panic, there were 36 child abuse deaths in Arizona.  By 2009, after seven years of Laurie Roberts writing that same column over and over again, and seven years of foster care panic, the number had reached at least 57.  (The official figure for 2009 is 64, but seven of those deaths are attributed to a change in the state’s definition of a maltreatment fatality.)

The reports did not break down child maltreatment deaths of children “known to the system” until 2004.  But that year there were 18 such deaths.  By 2009, the figure had doubled to 36. 

Both these increases far outpace the growth in both the total child population and the impoverished child population in the state.

As readers of this Blog know, I’m not keen on using fatalities, or horror stories in general, as a yardstick.  But I didn’t choose that measure for Arizona, Laurie Roberts did – in column after column after column.

And every time Laurie Roberts hits the send button on that same basic column, it feeds the panic just a little more and makes Arizona’s children just a little less safe.


But that isn’t the only danger in Roberts’ approach.  The other danger is that people will conclude that because Roberts’ bad idea – 40 columns explicitly or implicitly demanding that Arizona CPS tear apart more families - doesn’t work, nothing will work.

Roberts herself suggested as much in her column Saturday when she wrote:

Yeah, I know. I'm angry, too. And astonished, and amazed and about ready to throw in the towel and admit that there is no hope for these children. The last line of defense is just too often absent.

The part about no hope is as wrong as almost everything else Laurie Roberts has written about child welfare.  There is hope.  There are states and localities all over America that have made children significantly safer.  Examples are in our publication about best practices across the country.

But Roberts’ regurgitation of her same failed party line over and over only convinces everyone, apparently including herself, that nothing works, so why bother even trying?  That is child abandonment on a mass scale.

That kind of despair-mongering is especially dangerous in Arizona, which if some of the state’s journalists are any indication, operates with a bizarre sort of inferiority complex unlike anything I’ve seen in any other state.

Over and over, when I met with Arizona journalists, a startling number of them, especially among the editorial writers, would insist that no other state could possibly have problems as severe as Arizona problems, no citizenry was as hapless, incompetent and/or malevolent as Arizona citizenry.  Therefore, it was argued, there are no lessons from any other state that could possibly apply to Arizona.  The fact that Alabama – about the last state anyone would expect – is among those to transform its child welfare system into, relatively speaking, a national model, is irrelevant, I was told.  Though none of these various Arizona doom-sayers knew a thing about Alabama, all were certain that state’s  problems were nothing compared to Arizona’s. 

Nowhere else in America have I encountered a state where so many journalists are imbued with such a strong can’t-do spirit.  And the despair-mongering of Laurie Roberts only encourages that nonsense.


The usual response of journalists called out on their sloppy work covering child welfare is to set up a straw man.  They write something like this:  “Oh, so you don’t want me to report it when children die horrible deaths! You want journalists to ignore the horrors parents inflicted on their children! You want us to cover up for CPS!  Well, I’m not about to stop showing how much I care about (fill in names of dead children) no matter who demands that I look the other way!”

The “journalists” who write that kind of defensive drivel know it’s b.s.  What someone like myself wants, having spent 35 years following this issue, first as a reporter and now as an advocate, is not less coverage of child welfare – including the worst of the horrors - but more coverage, and most important, better coverage.

For starters, Laurie, ask yourself one question:  If caseworkers are as overloaded as you say they are, (or said they were on Aug. 24 before having some second thoughts on Aug. 27) how can all of the errors possibly go only in one direction?

Then, get out from behind that desk, Laurie.  Go out and meet the leaders of Black and Hispanic advocacy groups in Phoenix and see how CPS looks to them.  Check with the people who run anti-poverty programs, and housing aid programs and programs to help people with what passes for public assistance in Arizona and see the CPS they see.  Find out the danger of having an agency with so much power that law enforcement can use it to try to intimidate just about anyone (you can find that story right in your own newsroom.) Check out what’s going on in other states – states that are doing a better job than Arizona – in some cases without even spending much more.

Then come back and write columns that are informed by some original reporting for once.  Write some columns that tell Arizonans how to really fix their system, instead of just scaring workers into taking away more kids, persuading the public there’s no point even trying to fix the system, and prolonging Arizona’s perennial panic.  If you want to see how it’s done, check out the work of Issac Bailey, metro columnist for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Who knows?  You might finally write something that helps to make kids safer.