A story full of hype
and hysteria is written by a reporter with a disturbing track record.
of a Times story
today is a little different from the usual. Most fearmongering stories say the
sky is falling because of a drop in calls to child abuse hotlines. The Times
story focuses on another side effect of the coronavirus. Its thesis boils down
to: Oh my God! Children are being horribly abused because selfish caseworkers
and their evil union have cut back on in-person visits, thereby preventing the
same level of intrusion into the homes of overwhelmingly poor,
disproportionately nonwhite kids as occurred before COVID-19.
UPDATE, AUG. 25, 2020: That evil union had to hold a vigil yesterday to honor a child protective services caseworker who died of COVID-19 - apparently as a result of doing exactly what the Times story demands.
does this by using the ugly recipe that has characterized the worst child
welfare reporting for decades.
Step 1: Find a horror story. After digging through piles of data in a state
that investigates 360,000
reports of child abuse every year, the lead reporter, Garrett Therolf, found
what he wanted: A child
known-to-the-system whose death may have been due to the failure of a county
child protective services agency to make in-person visits.
2: Extrapolate from this one fatality using vague phrases such as “scores
of investigations into allegations of abuse or neglect have been delayed or
sharply curtailed during the pandemic.”
(The story offers no evidence that any of these delays actually endangered
a child. And, in a state that, again,
investigates 360,000 allegations per year, “scores” isn’t very many.)
3: Extrapolate further by telling us that “One in seven children is
reported to a [California] child abuse hotline by age 5 ...” The juxtaposition of the horror story and the
figure leaves the impression that one in seven California children is the
victim of horrific abuse – and now they’re all going unnoticed because of those
selfish caseworkers who won’t visit them and their awful union that is backing
In fact, the one-in-seven figure is
for calls to a child abuse hotline in California, nothing more. We know that, nationwide,
91 out of 100 of those calls is a false report and most of the rest involve the
confusion of poverty with neglect. We
also know that all the time wasted on false reports, trivial cases and the
confusion of poverty with neglect leaves workers less time to find children in
The second key problem is the latest twist on
the classic failure of both the child welfare system and a lot of journalism
about child welfare: the failure to
In this case a vivid account of
neglect and death is contrasted with vague concerns about COVID-19 – written in
a way to suggest that only caseworkers are at risk if they march through homes,
and that these caseworkers and their evil union are putting their selfish
interests ahead of the children.
But let’s imagine what might happen
if we did it the way reporter Therolf seems to prefer: The same level of
intrusion, the same level of poking and prying through bedrooms, cupboards,
refrigerators, the same long, personal interviews with family members, the same
stripsearching of the children.
How many people would have contracted
coronavirus as a result? How many would have died? How many parents would have died? How many
grandparents? How many children who had
never been abused would wind up orphaned? And, given that recent research
suggests we may have underestimated the risks to children, how many children
would have died? If even two children
died as a result, that would suggest trying to do business-as-usual probably
would have been more dangerous than what California, in fact, did.
The wrong partner
the problem: The Times should have
been more careful when it decided to contract out some stories in
California. They contracted with the Investigative
Reporting Program at University of California Berkeley Graduate School of
Journalism, where the child welfare stories are written by Garrett Therolf.
a disturbing track record dating back to when he was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a record that
includes accusations that he sometimes may have made stuff up; accusations he
The concerns about Therolf were
well described in this
2010 story from the Los Angeles online news site WitnessLA. That story fleshes out
reporting by Daniel Heimpel, now the publisher of the child welfare trade
journal The Imprint.
Therolf’s last stories for the Times
was actually an
attack on the whole notion that there is racial bias in child welfare – a story
that went out of its way to demean scholars whose work demonstrates such bias.
moved to Berkeley, where he built a career out of fearmongering stories that
exploit horror story cases. That work
includes a notorious Netflix documentary in which he showcases one of the most
extreme proponents of a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare,
Elizabeth Bartholet, and promotes the Orwellian
use of predictive analytics in Pittsburgh’s child welfare system.
in American journalism brought on by the collapse in advertising revenue has
led to all sorts of partnerships and collaborations that, in the past, would
have been unthinkable. Many of them have resulted in excellent work.
But The New York Times is one of the few
legacy news organizations that has thrived amid the chaos. It can afford to be
more careful in choosing its partners.