Sunday, November 27, 2011

Foster care in Cleveland: Did Plain Dealer sleaze claim another victim?

UPDATE, NOV. 30: Citing court records WKYC-TV is now reporting that, in foster care “the child is having dreams of dying, is wetting the bed, and is anxious that the world is going to end in 2012.”  The station also reports that part of the reason Cuyahoga County DCFS took the child away is that the mother missed some appointments.  As noted below, the foster mother also is having trouble keeping up with appointments, but DCFS is responding somewhat differently.

            You’ve probably already heard about this one: the eight-year-old boy who weighed 218 pounds and has been consigned to foster care as a result.

            Apparently oblivious to the emotional trauma of tearing this child from his mother, (including the fact that, at age 8, this child may now believe he did something wrong and now is being punished) the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services showed up at his school one day last month and refused to let him go home.  They shoved him directly into a foster home.   His mother can’t even visit him for more than two hours a week.

            The Cleveland Plain Dealer actually did a very good job with the story.  Among other things the story noted that:

            ● The child was on the honor roll at his school and participated in school activities.

            ● The child only came to the attention of child welfare authorities, early in 2010, because his single mother, a substitute teacher who also is taking vocational school classes, brought him to the hospital because of breathing problems.  He was diagnosed with sleep apnea, which often is caused by obesity.

            The story doesn’t say exactly how this led to DCFS intervention, but, as we all know in the wake of Penn State, doctors and nurses are “mandated reporters” required to call in any suspicion of “child abuse.”

DCFS did not remove the child then and there; instead, the agency started monitoring the family.  There is no mention of the agency helping the family.

            ● The boy did, in fact, lose weight.  But recently he began gaining it back – apparently siblings were sneaking him food.

            ● The mother voluntarily enrolled the child in a special hospital program to help obese children.

            What mom could not do, of course, was hire a personal trainer, or enroll the child in special camps or even keep an eye on him at all times, as wealthy families can do.  So it’s no wonder that Dr. Arthur Caplan, America’s most quoted medical ethicist, told the Plain Dealer he was concerned that, as the newspaper put it, “families with the fewest resources, which often are minorities, will end up being the ones with their children removed.”

            No kidding.

            Prof. Vivek Sankaran of the University of Michigan Child Advocacy Center is dealing with a similar case in Detroit.  "This is really dangerous stuff we're talking about," he told a Time magazine blog in July.  "A lot of people don't realize how traumatic it is for children to be ripped away from their parents."

In the case he’s working on, Sankaran said:

What we've seen … is that the actual removal causes irreparable damage to the child — emotional problems, behavioral problems — and it's the type of thing that can't be remedied.  People think [removing the child] is a quick fix, but you need to make sure you have tried every other possibility to protect the child.

Clearly in the Cleveland case they didn’t.  Because here’s the kicker – according to Mom’s public defender it turns out that the foster mother, who lives in a nearby suburb, can’t keep up with all the child’s appointments – even though that’s what was expected of the boy’s single mother, even as she juggled her efforts to improve her education and make a living.

But The Plain Dealer reports that DCFS was far more solicitous of the foster mother.  The newspaper reports that, according to the mother’s public defender, “There was even a discussion about getting the foster mother additional help or moving the child again, this time to a foster home with a personal trainer.”

            That prompted the public defender to ask the obvious question: “I wonder why they didn’t offer the mother that kind of extra help.”

            So if the Plain Dealer covered the story so well, why do I think the newspaper shares responsibility for this travesty?  Because the Plain Dealer did so much to create the climate made it almost inevitable.

            Early in 2010, after the Plain Dealer rediscovered two facts:

1.       Cuyahoga County has a child protective services agency and
2.      sometimes children known to that agency die,

it was the sleazy reporting by Harlan Spector and the even worse editorials by Sharon Broussard, falsely blaming the deaths on efforts to keep families together, that set off a huge foster-care panic in Cuyahoga County.

            The panic began in March of 2010.  By September of that year, the number of children taken from their homes had soared 65 percent over the same period in 2009 – and the panic has continued at the same rate this year.

            So why did the Plain Dealer do better on this story?  Probably because it was written by a different reporter, Rachel Dissell.

            I don’t know how it happened that Dissell was assigned to the story.  Perhaps in the midst of all the misery this family has been forced to endure, they got one stroke of luck.  Maybe Harlan Spector was taking the days around Thanksgiving off.