Monday, January 23, 2012

Foster care in America: ABC News discovers false allegations of child abuse (against middle-class white people)

            One month after broadcasting a program about foster care in which all birth parents are evil brutes whose children, many of them minorities, must be rescued by noble white people who either are foster parents or run residential treatment centers, ABC News discovered that there is such a thing as a false allegation of child abuse after all.

            But, of course, the network probably is interested only because this is one of those relatively rare cases in which the victims are people the producers can identify with. They are white and middle-class.  That made the producers comfortable devoting an hour of ABC’s newsmagazine 20/20 to the story of the Wendrow family.  (The full broadcast version is available here.)

            If the name sounds familiar, it may be because I’ve mentioned the case before, in this Blog post.  It’s the “Ouija board” case, in which prosecutors in suburban Detroit tried to prosecute a family based on “disclosures” supposedly made through a long-discredited practice called “facilitated communication.”

            The case already had been the subject of an excellent six-part series in the Detroit Free Press.  ABC even interviewed one of the reporters for that series.  Nevertheless, the ABC News story is well worth a look, if only to actually see and hear former Oakland County District Attorney David Gorcyca during his deposition in a civil lawsuit brought by the family.  There’s also an astounding segment toward the end of the program.  It raises questions about whether the prosecution tried to hoodwink the court during a demonstration of facilitated communication.  (Click on the last of the videos available here to see it.)

            But there is particular irony in ABC News zeroing in on this particular case.  Just a few miles – and a world – away, in a low-income neighborhood in Detroit there is a more recent case of blatant abuse by prosecutors and child protective services: the case of Maryanne Godboldo.

            Godboldo’s daughter was taken from her and institutionalized for nearly two months after Godboldo exercised her legal right to take the child off of a potent psychiatric medication that was causing severe side effects – a medication that authorities later admitted she didn’t need.  The child was taken after an illegal order (a judge’s signature had been, literally, rubber-stamped) was illegally served by police.

            ABC’s Detroit affiliate, WXYZ-TV, led all other media in the city in covering the case – so it’s not as if there is any shortage of either information or video. In addition, one of the prosecutors instrumental in prosecuting the Wendrow family, Deborah Carley, also played a key role in the case against Marianne Godboldo.

There are of course, two key differences between the Godboldos and the Wendrows: Race, and class.  Given that one of the messages in ABC’s foster care special (albeit an unintended one) is that Black people can’t be trusted to care for their own children, that may well explain the network’s lack of interest in the Godboldo case.  The Free Press itself is guilty of a similar double standard.

So impoverished, minority families are victimized twice; first by the racial bias that permeates child welfare itself, and then when they attempt to get Big Media to pay any attention to what the system is doing to their children.

But things are not hopeless.  There was a time when, when it comes to this sort of double-standard, no network was worse than NPR.  But that changed last year.  Perhaps someday better producers will bring change to ABC News as well.