Monday, January 20, 2020


“Spotlight Fellows” writing for the Boston Globe and ProPublica misunderstood a key federal law and got the causes of child abuse fatalities wrong.  Their massive project, reported and written with the best of intentions, is likely to make children less safe.

Today, NCCPR releases an in-depth analysis of stories that are a sad example of the way the journalism of child welfare often fails. The full report is available here.  Below are the key points.  As you read the report, I'm sure you'll understand why we decided to release it on Martin Luther King Day.

● Though reported with the best of intentions, stories written by two Boston Globe “Spotlight Fellows” and published by the Globe and ProPublica are likely to endanger the children they are meant to help.

The stories will encourage public policy that

          --Promotes foster-care panic, sharp sudden increases in removals of children from their homes that do terrible harm to children needlessly removed and overwhelm caseworkers so they have less time to find children in real danger.

          --Discourages women, particularly poor women and women of color, from seeking prenatal care or giving birth in hospitals, increasing the risk to their newborns.

          --Opens even wider the spigot of the “foster-care-to-prison pipeline” which leads to disastrous outcomes for children.  At the end of 2019, in fact, at almost the same time the Spotlight Fellows stories were released, this was documented brilliantly by the Kansas City Star.

● More than four decades of experience tracking child welfare – and the journalism of child welfare – make clear that the failure to provide context and diverse points of view concerning how to solve the problems the series exposed leads to such panics by workers, judges and child welfare agency leaders, all of whom fear being in the spotlight if they leave a child home and something goes wrong. 

● The reporters misunderstood the history and the politics of the law at the center of their stories, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. They made erroneous assumptions about key provisions of the law.

● There is far less consensus about CAPTA than is implied by the stories, in which only sources who reinforce the “master narrative” of the reporters are quoted.  That narrative suggests that CAPTA is fundamentally a good law that needs to be clarified, toughened and given more funding.  There is a vigorous debate among child welfare experts over this, with many believing CAPTA is a fundamentally bad law that harms children and should not be encouraged with more funding. But those viewpoints were entirely shut out of the stories, leaving readers in the dark.

● This was caused, in part, by a startling dichotomy in sourcing. Child welfare is a system that overwhelmingly polices the poor and, disproportionately the nonwhite.  But every national expert quoted is white. 

To understand how harmful this is, consider: In poor communities and communities of color, child protective services agencies are viewed, for good reason, in much the same way as the police.  It is inconceivable that a major series of any kind about the criminal justice system would leave out the voices of all national experts who are not white. It should be equally inconceivable when the topic is child welfare.

● The journalists’ view of CAPTA is seen most clearly in the series’ de facto endorsement of one of CAPTA’s worst provisions, the “plan of safe care” provision, which ratchets up surveillance of pregnant women and infants “affected” by parental substance use.  There is no evidence base for this provision – no research indicating it makes children safer.  What research does exists suggests that this sort of approach makes children less safe – by driving their mothers away from prenatal care and away from giving birth in hospitals.

● The stories show a fundamental misunderstanding of who winds up in the child welfare system and why, including a misunderstanding of crucial data about “substantiated” child abuse and neglect reports.

● Even as she was working on these stories, one of the reporters did pro-bono work for an advocacy group that takes strong stands on these same issues. That is a conflict of interest.

● None of this means everything about the stories was wrong. The reporters are right to highlight the need for a standard national definition for child abuse fatalities and near fatalities.  They also are right to call for far more public disclosure concerning such fatalities. In fact, they don’t go far enough. NCCPR is on record calling for much more transparency: a strong rebuttable presumption of openness for all court hearings and almost all records in all child abuse and neglect cases. 

● Contrary to what reporters who are called out for these sorts of failings often say, none of this means that child abuse deaths should be ignored.  No, it does not mean that, as sometimes has been alleged over the years, “you don’t want us to report it when children die!”  On the contrary, we need more coverage of such fatalities - coverage that gets at the real causes and real solutions.  At least one newspaper, the Dayton Daily News has done that.  And we need more stories about the consequences of getting the solutions wrong – which, as noted above, the Kansas City Star did  at almost exactly the same time as the Spotlight Fellows’ stories were published. 

● The Spotlight Fellows had the chance to advance the debate over how to reduce child abuse fatalities, a debate that has been going nowhere for decades. Instead, they offered only more of the same.  Perhaps others will do better.  Because the solution to the problems of journalism is more journalism.