Saturday, February 27, 2016

Foster care in Michigan: The reporter who listened

The Lansing State Journal published a package of excellent stories this week on how families in Michigan are destroyed when they don’t have adequate defense counsel to fight for them in court.  Sadly that is the norm, not just in Michigan, where we discussed it in our reports on child welfare in that state, but in most of the country.

The State Journal stories include an outstanding overview of the damage done, contrasting what happens in typical cases with the results in the rare cases when families can get help from groups like the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy, some useful graphics and two sidebars, including one about a case that perfectly illustrates the biggest single problem in American child welfare: the confusion of poverty with neglect.

But I was most struck by a paragraph at the very end of the main story.  It’s in the how-and-why-we-did-this-project section, a standard feature of investigative projects

In this case, that section began this way:

This story started with a brief report in July 2015, on the 10th anniversary of the death of Ingham County foster child Ricky Holland, that detailed the ways Michigan continues to fail foster kids. After that story published, Lansing State Journal investigative reporter Justin A. Hinkley received numerous phone calls from parents claiming the Michigan Children’s Protective Services had taken their kids away without cause. The State Journal decided to dig.

The original story wasn’t about wrongful removal at all.  Yet the newspaper received lots of calls from people saying that’s what happened to their families.

That’s not unusual.  Any reporter who does a big story about child welfare gets those calls. Even if the story was the most common kind, the kind that’s easiest to get, the “Why-did-the-child- welfare-system-allow-this-child-to-die” story, the calls and emails and letters will come in.

But most reporters ignore those calls.  Most reporters blow off the very idea that there’s a big problem with children needlessly being taken from their homes.  And the exceptions usually involve the very rare cases in which the problem affects a middle-class family – the kind of family reporters can identify with.

There are a lot of reasons.

● The race, class and personal experiences of most journalists are a lot closer to those of foster and adoptive parents than they are to birth parents who lose their children to foster care.  Chances are every reporter has a relative or a colleague or a friend or a friend-of-a-friend who is  an adoptive parent or foster parent; odds are almost none have a personal connection to a birth parent whose child was taken away.

● With no personal experience to counter it, reporters accept the same stereotypes as most people: Parents who lose their children to foster care must be sadists brutes and/or hopeless addicts who “put drugs ahead of their children.”

● It’s easy to make such assumptions both because they have no personal experiences to counter it, and because child welfare systems are more secret than the CIA.  It’s easy to hide needless removal of children behind “confidentiality” rules that supposedly protect children but actually protect only agencies. 

In contrast, the only time the system can’t hide – or at least can’t hide as easily – is when a child dies.  So it’s easy for journalists to get the misimpression that the system errs in only one direction – leaving children in dangerous homes.  It’s just as easy for reporters to convince themselves that if the system occasionally errs in the other direction, no real harm is done.

Then there are the problems in reporting the story, even when reporters are inclined to do so:

● Desperate people don’t always tell the most coherent stories.  The words tumble out over the phone or they come in page after page of email, often without so much as a paragraph break.  It takes a lot of work to figure out the story, and then there’s no guarantee that there is a story. 

Some of the people who make these claims actually are guilty as sin.  Some are crazy. Some have been driven crazy by what has happened to them.  But many of them are right.  They are fighting for children who have been victimized by a very real injustice – being torn needlessly from everyone they know and love.

The people making the calls and sending the emails are desperate for a reporter to listen.  Justin Hinkley listened.  Another Michigan reporter who listened was Curt Guyette.  He wrote about the confusion of poverty with neglect for the Detroit alternative weekly Metro Times in 2009.  Being a good listener pays off.  More recently, Guyette was the reporter who first exposed the poisoning of Flint.

There are a lot of reasons why so many reporters don’t listen; I mentioned some of them earlier.  But there are other barriers as well.

● A reporter who commits to trying to do the story then has to face the “veto of silence.”  The child welfare agency is likely to say “Oh, there is so much more to the story and we wish we could tell you, really we do, but we just can’t – confidentiality, you know.”

This is nonsense.  In a few states, laws specify that, in many cases, agencies can talk.  The agencies just pretend they can’t.  And child welfare agencies are no different than any other bureaucracy.  I know from my own 19 years as a reporter, and from the experiences of so many others, that  if the agency really has information that will make it look better, someone is likely to leak it.

But still, there’s that nagging doubt in the back of the reporter’s mind – what if I publish this and I wind up looking like a fool?

● And after all that, there’s one last problem – the problem faced by all reporters: Editors.

Not only are editors likely to be reluctant to give reporters the time to do a project like this, they’re likely to cling to the same preconceived notions as most reporters.

There are ways to overcome all of these problems.  Many reporters have.  Links to some of their work are on this page at

But sadly, when it comes to that paragraph in the Lansing State Journal story, the one thing that’s unusual is that last sentence.  The one that says “The State Journal decided to dig”

Thank you, Justin Hinkley, for digging.  And, oh alright, thank you State Journal editors, too.