Thursday, August 11, 2011

Foster care in Los Angeles: Two solid editorials from the L.A. Times

There is a ritual of sorts at American newsrooms.  After a reporter does a big project or one or more front page stories filled with alleged revelations about government shortcomings, the editorial page is supposed to give the reporter a pat on the back.  The editorial congratulates the reporter for her or his enterprise and demands that government immediately do whatever the reporter wants it to do.

But all through the years that Los Angeles Times reporter Garrett Therolf has been trying to foment hype and hysteria about child welfare in Los Angeles, the Times editorial board has refused to play along.

For a long time the editorial page was simply silent on the issue.  Then it offered up its own careful, measured assessments which simply ignored Therolf’s pet theories.

But this week, the editorial board went further.  Instead of giving Therolf a pat on the back, the editorial board administered a kick a little lower.  As Celeste Fremon explains in this excellent analysis on her Blog WitnessLA, the criticism of Therolf’s reporting was subtle – but unmistakable.

Most of the editorial Sunday blasted the Board of Supervisors for defying the Bureau of State Audits and refusing to provide the Bureau with reports on child abuse fatalities.  That is all-too-typical of the bunker mentality that has characterized the Board and DCFS, and the Times does an excellent job of demolishing the Board’s flimsy excuses.  But a newspaper coming out for more openness in government is strictly dog-bites-man stuff.  The man-bites-dog part of the editorial is this extraordinary paragraph:

All that said, the supervisors' actions may be comprehensible, even if indefensible. Child deaths from abuse and neglect are fraught with emotion and can result in sensational headlines, in newspapers like this one, to which supervisors feel compelled to respond. One more study of fatalities, such as the state audit demanded after the killing of Seth Ireland, steeps policymakers in a swamp of exceptional failures and worst cases. It makes it easy to forget that data show overwhelmingly that outcomes are better for children who stay in their homes — even with families struggling with poverty, even in neighborhoods with inadequate schools — than for those removed by well-meaning or backside-covering county agencies. It makes it easy to forget that the county's most effective and most economical response to children in trouble is to help their families with resources and programs to cope with their challenges.

But the Times wasn’t done.  The next day the Times published another editorial blasting governments that react to high-profile tragedies by becoming, among other things, “too prone to snatch children from their homes and too unwilling or too clueless to help troubled families.”

The editorial continues:

High-profile cases of abuse at the hands of violent or addicted parents resulted in panic and waves of removals, supposedly in the interests of child safety. Abuse in foster homes led officials to send children the other way, back to their families. Instead of a ladder leading upward, child welfare programs seemed to operate like a pendulum, swinging back and forth depending on the latest outrage.

Later the editorial condemns “policy changes spurred by child deaths rather than hard data.”  It continues:

But progress is real. Studies that follow children who were kept with their families or placed with relatives show that they do better in school, have fewer run-ins with the law and have better prospects for the future than their counterparts removed to foster care.

The editorial concludes by calling for the appointment of a permanent director for the county Department of Children and Family Services “who will stand up to the Supervisors and not allow them to make panic, rather than progress, the key factor in departmental decisionmaking.”

On one point I think the second editorial is mistaken.  For reasons discussed in one of the first posts to this Blog, foster-care panics don’t work in reverse – that is, with very rare exceptions, deaths of children in foster care don’t prompt child welfare agencies to take away fewer children.  Indeed, as we discuss in our report on Los Angeles child welfare, when Viola Vanclief died in foster care in 2010, Therolf wrote his stories in ways that appear intended to make sure that death didn’t prompt calls to reduce foster care.  And in fact, during the months after Viola’s death entries into care were higher than during the same months the year before.

Nevertheless, both editorials are almost entirely on the mark.  They should be required reading in every county office – and at every desk in the Times newsroom.