In former Los Angeles Times reporter Garrett Therolf’s
world, white people “marshal data.” Black people rely only on “folkways.”
|Therolf has left the building. But he left behind a story|
permeated with racial bias.
UPDATE, FEB. 22: Compare Therolf's failure to how Laura Nahmias covered the same issue for Politico New York.
Imagine for a moment
that a reporter on the criminal justice beat wrote a story claiming that there
are “two theories” about the police and the African-American community: Either
there is more crime in poor Black
neighborhoods - because there is more poverty - or
there is police
brutality, harassment, needless stop-and-frisk searches, traumatic
interrogations of the innocent, false arrests, etc.
One would hope such
a journalist would be laughed out of the newsroom.
But, as is so often
the case, the standards for child welfare, and for reporting on child welfare,
That brings me to
the last two stories begun by reporter Garrett Therolf before he left the Los Angeles Times
last year. He
completed them while at his new job and they were published last week.
Several years ago,
Therolf faced a lot of criticism on this blog and elsewhere
for his child welfare coverage. Therolf is
certainly not the only reason Los Angeles tears apart children at a rate well above the average for big cities
, double the rate of New York and triple the rate of Chicago, but he’s
a part of it.
One of his last Times stories
follows a particular case through the Los Angeles County child welfare
system. That story actually is pretty good - except when it tries to deal directly with issues of race. And there are serious problems with a sidebar
devoted specifically to that issue.
The error of either/or
Therolf begins the
sidebar by noting that while eight percent of Los Angeles County children are
Black, they represent 28 percent of the county’s foster children. Then he writes:
There are basically two theories, and the
approach an agency takes to addressing the problem depends, at least in part,
on which theory it accepts. One holds that social worker bias against black
parents is to blame. The other argues that black children truly are victimized
at higher rates.
So it’s either/or,
all-or-nothing. This eliminates the
obvious possibility that, as with criminal justice, because of poverty, both can be at play.
The problem is even
more complicated in child welfare. Most state laws, including California’s
effectively define poverty itself as
“neglect.”* So it’s easy to point to
statistics and say: See? There’s more “neglect” in Black communities precisely
because there is more poverty there – and that poverty is confused with “neglect.”
In addition, child
abuse is related, in part, to stress. Poor people tend to be under more stress than rich people, and African-Americans are more likely to be poor. So again, the key issue is poverty.
But in the main story Therolf claims that on top of all the stress of being poor, the "prevailing view" is that Black parents are more prone to abuse their children “following
generations of deprivation and inequity.” (In fact, there is no "prevailing view" - but it certainly seems to be Therolf's
In other words, Therolf
racism makes Black parents abusive, but there is no present
racism affecting the decisions of child protective services workers.
Sadly, there are people in child welfare who believe this. In fact, even as the
president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, a group not
known to be dominated by bleeding-heart liberals, issues an apology
to communities of color for racial bias in
policing, a faction of liberals in child welfare denies their field even has a
Apparently unlike in
the police force, and pretty much every other aspect of American life, child
welfare workers are simply so much better
than other people that they have acquired a kind of magical immunity from the
biases that plague mere mortals.
This is reflected in
the willingness of some of my fellow liberals to forego everything they claim
to believe in about civil liberties
and due process
someone whispers the words “child abuse” in their ears. Consider how, as is discussed here
, some liberals, appalled by stop-and-frisk, embrace the use in child welfare of “predictive analytics,”
a similar infringement on civil liberties that boils down to
computerized racial profiling.
Harvard’s resident extremist
Then Therolf tells
us about a 2011 conference at Harvard on the topic. What he does not tell us is that the
conference was organized by the leader of the “denial” movement – Prof.
Elizabeth Bartholet of Harvard Law School.
Bartholet’s views on child welfare are so extreme that if one takes the
recommendations in her own book bashing family preservation seriously and
literally (and surely we’ve learned by now that this is wise when dealing with
extremists) states would have to take away at least two million children every
In her book, Nobody's Children
(pp. 170,171), she also proposes
that every family in America with a young child be required
to let in a government-approved “home visitor” to inspect
their home at regular intervals from the child’s birth until school age. The
visitors would be required to report to authorities anything they considered a
threat to a child’s safety or “well-being.”
Bartholet is explicit in recommending this for purposes of, her word,
Bartholet says this “would
simply provide society with a realistic means of enforcing” laws against
abusing and neglecting children. So would a surveillance camera mounted in
every room of every home with no way to turn it off. Perhaps Bartholet didn’t
suggest this because George Orwell thought of it first.
Nor does Therolf
tell us that the conference was an exercise in deck-staking. Bartholet decided who was invited to speak,
and almost every speaker she chose shared her views. Having listened to this parade of people who’d
already decided that racial bias is not a problem, Therolf then tells us that
the “prevailing view” among researchers is that racial bias is not a problem.
He also tells us
that “Many left the conference believing that any caseworker bias against black
families accounted for only a small portion of the disparity in foster care
rates.” Of course they did. It’s what they believed when they walked in the
Double standards for describing experts
But where the story
becomes most condescending is in its treatment of experts on each side. First, he gives one paragraph to one of the few
dissenters Bartholet invited to speak at the conference. He writes that those who believe racism is a
…gained encouragement from University of
Pennsylvania law professor Dorothy Roberts, who said: “If you came to any child
dependency court in Chicago, in Los Angeles or in New York and had no
preconceptions about what the purpose of the court was, you would probably
leave thinking its purpose was to monitor and regulate and even tear apart
Bartholet gets very
different treatment. There is no mention
of her extremism. Instead, in a paragraph that sounds like it should have begun
with “Some of her best friends are…” Therolf writes about how she was once,
long ago, a real life civil rights lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense
fund! (So of course, anything she says
about child welfare and race could not possibly be tainted by bias.) This is like suggesting Ronald Reagan could
not possibly have been out to break unions or enact a radical right-wing agenda
as president because decades earlier he’d been a liberal and a union leader.
rely on mere anecdote, Therolf tells us. Bartholet “marshaled data to argue
that when poverty and neighborhood characteristics are used to analyze foster
care rates, race disappears as an explanatory factor.”
Compare this with
Therolf’s treatment of the next expert to appear in his story, Cheryl Grills
. Dr. Grills is a clinical psychologist and
director of the Psychology Applied Research Center at Loyola Marymount University. She also served as Co-Executive Director of
the Los Angeles County Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection.
identifies her only as “a professor at Loyola Marymount” who, Therolf claims,
wants to “institutionalize child protection based on African and African-American
the latest studies and
academic research.” [Emphasis added.]
Got that everyone?
White people “marshal data.” Black
people just want to rely on anecdote and “folkways.”
It is offensive, and
speaks to the extent of bias not just in child welfare but in newsrooms, that
the following even needs to be pointed out:
The data are overwhelming that there is, in
racial bias in child welfare.
Much of that data
can be found in Prof. Roberts’ book.
NCCPR has prepared a short summary
some of the studies finding profound racial bias, over and above the class bias
and other problems that permeate child welfare.
Therolf goes on to suggest
that caseworkers can’t possibly be biased because many of them are, themselves,
Black. He dismisses the notion that institutional bias can push any caseworker
to treat less favored groups differently. He ignores the scholarship of, for
example, Prof. Tanya Cooper of the University of Alabama Law School, who writes
Unconscious racism is embedded in our civic
institutions; and the foster care system is vulnerable as one such institution
controlled and influenced by those in power. Those in power in turn may
unwittingly discriminate against people of color, which history demonstrates.
But also, the issue
of bias isn’t so, uh, black and white.
If there is a racial, religious or ethnic group that doesn’t have to
grapple with biases among themselves I have yet to find it. Often, though not
always, the fault-line for intra
conflict is class.
In child welfare, racial
bias and class bias combine to create a toxic mix for poor families of color.
Consider the very
case on which Therolf focused. The
children were taken because the Los Angeles County Department of Children and
Family Services (DCFS) alleged that, in Therolf’s words:
One: [The mother, Monique] Baker’s house is
“filthy,” placing “the children at risk of physical harm, damage and danger.” Two: Baker is not taking her children for
Baker has “mental and emotional problems, including major anxiety
disorder, major depression and PTSD, which renders the mother unable to provide
But even if we
assume all of these allegations are true, had a case such as this arisen in,
say, Beverly Hills, DCFS never even would have noticed. It would have been
solved privately by application of the following “preventive services”:
And that brings us
back to Bartholet’s claim that “when poverty and neighborhood characteristics
are used to analyze foster care rates, race disappears as an explanatory
Back before scholars
such as Prof. Roberts marshaled all that data to show how pervasive racial bias
is in child welfare, those wedded to a take-the-child-and-run approach insisted
that agencies never take away children because of poverty. Now, rather than admit to racial bias, they
effectively admit to class bias. I
suppose that’s progress.
But neither bias
should be tolerable in child welfare, and neither bias should be whitewashed by
* In California, neglect
includes: “The failure or inability of the parent or guardian to adequately
supervise or protect the child” and “The willful or negligent failure of the
parent or guardian to provide the child with adequate food, clothing, shelter,
or medical treatment.”
**In her book, Nobody’s Children, Bartholet argues that
children should be removed from the home in cases of “serious” abuse and
neglect. In the same book (p. 61) she writes that “Estimates indicate that more
than three million children a year are subjected to serious forms of abuse and
neglect.” Even if she could be persuaded to leave one-third of “seriously”
abused children in their own homes, that would mean taking away two million
children every year.