Saturday, January 2, 2016

Child welfare in Oregon: A columnist's self-indulgent rage isn't helping

I’ve previously noted that one of the easiest ways for a newspaper columnist to fill space is to write the "boy-if-there's-one-thing-in-the-world-that-I-really-really-hate-more-than-anything-it's-child abuse-and-all-the-people-who-let-this-child-die-must-be-lazy-or-idiots” column. 

Former home of The Oregonian
No actual reporting is required. If anyone disagrees with anything in the column then at best they just don’t care; at worst they’re in favor of child abuse.  Aside from filling space, these columns accomplish nothing except to encourage a rush to take away more children.  That’s dangerous in any state, but especially in one like Oregon, which takes away children at a rate well above the national average.

I’ve noted before that a master of this genre is Steve Duin at the Oregonian in Portland – which is too bad, since he’s also capable of much better work.

Duin was at it again on December 22.  This time he seemed intent less on calling attention to child abuse than on distracting readers from where a lot of that abuse has been turning up lately in Oregon – foster care.

He begins this way: 
Oleander Labier weighed 28 pounds when, at the age of 5, her torture finally ended. And while Oleander doesn't rank high in terms of blood money, those millions the state of Oregon has paid out in settlements in cases involving the Department of Human Services, hers is the story of neglect and suffering that still speaks to me. 
It should speak to anyone.  But so should the case that actually prompted the huge payout Duin is talking about.  Here’s what that case involved, according to the Salem Statesman-Journal: 
James Earl Mooney, a former Salem resident, pleaded guilty in 2012 to five counts of first-degree sodomy of medically fragile children, ages 48 hours to 3 years, who had disabilities or other special needs. Mooney was sentenced to 50 years in the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution for crimes that included sodomizing an 18-month-old foster baby in her car seat while his wife attended a doctor's appointment with another foster child. 
Doesn’t that at least whisper to you, Mr. Duin?

Similarly, the scandal involving the foster-care agency Give Us This Day gets barely a mention and no graphic details. (At least Duin gives credit where it’s due - to Willamette Week reporter Nigel Jaquiss - for breaking the story.)

UPDATE, JAN 4, 2016: And just last week, two Oregon newspapers reported on two more examples of foster care failure, this time in "residential treatment."

On one level, the minimal attention to abuse in foster care is understandable.  Talking a lot about it would make the segue to the Only Public Official Who Really Cares part of the column a bit awkward – I’ll get to that in a moment.  But first, there’s the Ritual Condemnation Of The Rest of Us: 
… [R]efusal to take ownership of a tragedy sums up this state's attitude toward the abuse and death of children under our care. Our attitude. Yours and mine. 
I think he really just means yours, Oregon.  He proves how much he cares by writing columns scolding everyone else: 
In not giving a damn, the governor, the Legislature, the attorney general and the Department of Human Services simply follow our lead. 
As I said, Oregon, I think he means your lead.  As for not giving a damn, I’ve previously noted Duin’s belief in his own extraordinary power to read minds.  Once again, he can detect that almost everyone who works for the state human services agency, the Attorney General and every state legislator (except one – we’ll get back to that) doesn’t care.

By the time he says, much farther down that he knows there are  “people who bring extraordinary commitment to their jobs in child welfare …” he sounds like Donald Trump saying that some of the Mexicans crossing the border actually “I assume, are good people.” 

Oregon State Sen. Sara Gelser
But there is one hero in this story (besides the columnist himself).  He writes: 
In recent months, a legislative committee chaired by Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, has called the state's foster care agency on the Capitol carpet. … Gelser has a sustained interest in child-welfare issues. Her family has frequently asked her to give it a rest over Sunday dinner. … "I have not seen engagement on this issue in a meaningful way from our prior two governors," Gelser notes. Until Gov. Kate Brown deeded control of the agency to Clyde Saiki last month, nor has [sic]  Gelser seen anyone at the controls of Human Services prioritize child safety. 
I don’t doubt Sen. Gelser’s commitment or her dedication.  But her agenda suggests she has made the common mistake of confusing child removal with child safety.  Again from the column: 
At the very least, Gelser argues, the agency needs a far better screening process for the initial complaints of child abuse and neglect. "We close far more reports at screening – 60 percent – than any state in the country," Gelser says. "There's no investigation. You call the child-welfare line, and nothing happens. And the majority of calls about foster care are closed." 
That’s probably not exactly what Gelser said.  She said Oregon screened out calls at among the highest rates in the country.  (I know this because when I emailed her, at about 2:15pm her time on the day before Christmas, she immediately responded, personally, with the source for her information and what she had tweeted at the time.  As I said, I don’t doubt the part about dedication.)

But looking only at the rate at which calls to a state’s child protection hotline are screened in or screened out can be misleading.

Oregon does screen out calls at a rate well above the national average – though it’s 56.6 percent, not 60 percent.  But Oregonians also are far more likely to call the hotline in the first place (which is pretty remarkable for a state which, according to Duin, is filled with people who don’t give a damn).  Nationwide hotlines get about 47 calls for every thousand children.  In Oregon it’s more than 76.  

It’s possible this is because Oregon is a cesspool of depravity with vastly more child abuse than the nation as a whole.  More likely, however, people in Oregon just happen to be more prone to heed the constant messages to “report” anything and everything, no matter how absurd the suspicion may be.  With that many more people, proportionately, calling in, it makes perfect sense that a larger proportion of cases won’t meet even the minimal standards needed to be accepted for investigation.

In addition, Oregon “substantiates” cases at a rate 35 percent above the national average.  But that’s still only 23 percent of the cases – which means workers are wasting more than three-quarters of their time spinning their wheels – because the screening isn’t strict enough.

So, to review:

● Oregonians phone in reports of child abuse at a rate above the national average.
● Calls are accepted for investigation at a rate below the national average.
● Investigations are substantiated at a rate above the national average.
● Children are removed from their homes at a rate above the national average.

But Sen. Gelser expresses concern only about the figure for screening.

In fairness, Gelser also notes with concern that a majority of reports alleging abuse in foster care are closed at screening.  In fact, that also makes sense. Though multiple studies, including at least one specific to Oregon, have found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes, that’s still not a majority.

What does not make sense, however, is the fact that allegations of abuse in foster care are screened out at a significantly higher rate  - more than 66 percent – than allegations of abuse in general.  This is still another indication of where the real bias lies in Oregon.

Duin pays more attention to another of Gelser’s concerns: 
Gelser also notes that the majority of reports from the children's Court Appointed Special Advocates – are also dismissed at screening: "That makes no sense to me." 
Actually, it makes perfect sense.  CASA volunteers mean well, but the evidence is overwhelming that the racial and class bias that permeates child welfare is virtually built in to the CASA model.  That may well prompt CASAs to report cases where no maltreatment has taken place.

None of this means the Oregon hotline is working well.  Odds are, like every other part of almost every other child welfare system, it is arbitrary, capricious and cruel, with some cases wrongly screened out — and others wrongly screened in.  In at least three other states, when hotline operators were given identical hypothetical cases, there was no consistency in whether the cases were screened in or out.  So a truly objective investigation would be worthwhile.

But the whole screening debate needs to be seen in the context of that other disturbing statistic:

Oregon tears children from their families at anywhere from 15 to 34 percent above the national average – and it’s been doing that for decades.  Surely, if take-the-child-and-run were the answer, Oregon would have much safer children by now.

Instead, of course, all that needless removal overloads the system, creating an artificial “shortage” of placements.  So the state looks the other way at abuse in foster care.  And now, it seems, Steve Duin wants us to look away from that part of the picture, too.