Wednesday, October 20, 2021

How the journalism of child welfare fails

Two online news sites published more than 10,000 words about foster care in West Virginia.  Not one of those words came from a birth parent.

UPDATE, DEC. 20, 2022: Compare the failure discussed below to how ProPublica and NBC News just examined "child welfare" in West Virginia - and got the story right.

             Imagine for a moment that you are a reporter assigned to write a multi-part in-depth series on the criminal justice system.  Now, try to imagine submitting a three-part series of more than 10,000 words filled with the comments of judges, prosecutors, police officers and prison guards – but not one word from someone accused of a crime, or even from a defense lawyer.

             Hard to imagine, especially now, isn’t it?  Yet the equivalent happens, over and over and over, when the topic is foster care.  Because, consciously or not, while reporters may not believe all parents caught up in the system are evil – indeed they will rush to say: “No, no, we wrote an entire story about ‘prevention!’” they write as if they believe any parent whose child "had to be" taken away must be sick, sick sick!  Therefore, they are too subhuman to have their perspective shared with readers.

             No wonder.  Most reporters and, especially, their editors, are white and middle class.  Most foster parents are disproportionately white and overwhelmingly middle class.  Most caseworkers are disproportionately white and overwhelmingly middle-class. Parents who lose their children to foster care, on the other hand, are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately nonwhite. 


Reporters can identify with foster parents – they probably know some, or at least have friends who do – or if not that, then they may have friends who adopted a foster child. Reporters can identify with caseworkers - college-educated underpaid hardworking white-collar professionals, just like them.  Few journalists have any personal friends whose children have been forced to endure the trauma of needless foster care. 

            So birth parents become, at best, nonentities, at worst those awful people their foster or adoptive parent friends told them about.  So they’re unworthy of inclusion, unworthy of being heard.  That winds up doing enormous damage to children. 

           When I was starting out as a reporter, 45 years ago, I made all of the mistakes I criticize now.  But after all this time, journalism should have learned to do better.  Some journalists have; most have not. 

            The result is stories that, despite months of hard work by earnest, well-meaning reporters are filled with stereotypes and misconceptions that only make it harder to fix serious and real problems. 

            Case in point: The three-part series about West Virginia foster care published in September by Mountain State Spotlight and The GroundTruth Project, which also created Report for America.  The reporters for these stories are current and former Report for America Fellows. I single these stories out not because they are exceptionally awful - there’s far worse out there - but precisely because they are so typical of the journalism of child welfare. (For that same reason, though anyone can click on the link, I’m not naming the reporters; it’s their editors who should have asked more questions.) 

            Another reason to look closely at these stories: The flaws should be even more obvious when the state in question is West Virginia.  

            That’s because, when it comes to tearing apart families, West Virginia is among the most extreme outliers in America.  This is mentioned once, in passing, in the stories, and accorded no significance other than to illustrate a supposed need for more foster parents. 

In 2019, before COVID, even when factoring in rates of child poverty, West Virginia tore apart families at the third highest rate in America, a rate well over double the national average.  When you look at the number of children trapped in foster care on any given day, West Virginia is the fourth worst in America; again, that's even when factoring in rates of child poverty. 

Yeah, I know: Opioids.  The stories blithely attribute West Virginia’s high rate of removal to the fact that “More than half entered the system because of a parent’s substance abuse.”  That’s not correct. More than half entered the system because a worker checked the “substance abuse” box on a form; that is not necessarily the same thing.  Also: 

● While opioids made it worse, West Virginia was a family destruction outlier even before the opioid crisis.  

● It also assumes that the only solution when, say, a parent’s legal prescription for Oxycontin leads to addiction is to take away the children - as opposed to, say, drug treatment, something discussed in detail here.  

●Other states with severe opioid problems, such as Ohio, take away children at a rate that, while still too high, is far lower than the rate in West Virginia. 

The reporters either never spoke to – or ignored – all those families whose children were taken where opioids were not an issue - including all those victims of false allegations or cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect.  (Unless, of course, one believes that happens only in the other 49 states.) 

            Thus, one story discusses how West Virginia institutionalizes far too many children and sends many of them out of state.  The story reveals case after case in which these institutionalized children were abused.  But that is a story one West Virginia news organization or another has done every few years for decades.  And they all make the same mistake as the most recent stories: The problem is said to be due to a “shortage of foster parents.”  So there’s supposedly a desperate need for more people like someone I’ll call Saintly Foster Mom, a standard trope in these stories, who I’ll talk more about later. 

But the shortage of foster parents in West Virginia is artificial.  If opioid-plagued West Virginia cut the rate at which it tears apart families to the rate in opioid-plagued Ohio, half the children in West Virginia foster care wouldn’t be there.  “Shortage” solved.

            But because this point of view is entirely absent, this expose of horrible out-of-state placements of Vest Virginia foster children is likely to have the same substantive effect as all the other exposes of horrible out-of-state placements of West Virginia foster children: None. 

            Of there’ll be the usual expressions of shock and outrage, maybe legislative hearings, and perhaps some more money thrown at the state family policing agency, the Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) to hire more caseworkers to take even more children.  All of that will give the news organizations something to write on journalism awards entry forms where they ask “What did the stories accomplish?”  

But it won’t accomplish anything for the kids.  Because by refusing to meaningfully consider wrongful removal, the series effectively lets DHHR off the hook.  The agency can keep right on coming back with the same old excuse: We have to do this, there’s a shortage of foster parents, you know. 

            That’s what happens when you limit your source base almost entirely to people who are part of the very system that has failed: The sources consist largely of people who now or in the past kept the West Virginia child removal machine running at full speed: current and former caseworkers for an assortment of “providers” or current or former high ranking officials of those “providers,” with the occasional politician expressing outrage thrown in. So of course the answer to everything is going to be some version of give us providers more money so we can rescue children – and, maybe while we’re at it, make those sick, sick, sick parents better. 

            The propaganda even affects the children themselves.  To their credit, the reporters at least spoke to some foster youth.  Included was one, now 15,  who 

entered the state foster care system at 6 years old; by the time he was 8, his social worker was transporting him to group homes outside West Virginia. “I was too messed up for foster programs.” [he said.] 

           No eight-year-old is too “messed up” for a family, either his own or, when that’s genuinely unsafe, a foster family.  The key is providing the family whatever it takes through wraparound services.  Wraparound pioneer Karl Dennis explains it well in this video:


The 15-year-old has internalized propaganda from the industry that institutionalizes children – and the journalists failed to do enough to question it.  The closest they came was a quote from Marcia Lowry of A Better Childhood, who filed one of her typical McLawsuits against the state.  She at least disagreed with those who said the solution to sending children to out-of-state institutions is to build more in-state institutions.  But Lowry's lawsuits suffer from the same failing as the stories: they ignore the huge number of children needlessly taken from their homes in the first place. 

Indeed, the journalists are so accepting of conventional wisdom that at one point they write: 

 The path to reducing the number of foster kids leaving the state isn’t clear, especially as West Virginia continues to experience waves of children affected by poverty, the COVID-19 pandemic and the drug crisis. 

What does children affected by poverty have to do with the need for foster care? ( unless, of course, you think it’s a good idea to confuse poverty with “neglect”?)  What does COVID have to do with it?  (Unless you buy into the widely-debunked (and, by the way, racially-biased) claims that COVID lockdowns set off a “pandemic of child abuse”Even in the case of children orphaned by COVID, there usually are extended family members who can step in.)  As for the drug crisis, that was discussed above. 

No, there is a perfectly clear path to reducing the number of foster kids leaving the state – but both public officials and journalists in West Virginia have chosen to ignore it. 

But what about the “prevention” story? 

What do you mean ignored it? the journalists might reply. We devoted one entire story to “prevention” and how West Virginia starts prevention programs and then cuts funding for them! 

            Except that this is the traditional provider-centric model of prevention.  The story describes an assortment of programs built largely around what providers want to provide: counseling and parent education – because, remember, those parents may not be evil but they sure are sick!  And we providers want to be noble healers; we didn’t get college degrees just to do the grubby work of providing concrete help to families! 

In fact, a small number of parents are evil.  A small number are sick. So for some of the latter, some forms of counseling and/or parent education are helpful.  Where substance abuse really is a problem that is a real sickness for which family-based drug treatment is essential.  But a prevention strategy built around providing only the help that makes the helpers feel good is doomed to failure - as West Virginia keeps proving. 

Overwhelmingly, the problem that leads to family separation is poverty – and the solution is money.  It doesn’t have to be a lot of money.  One study after another has found that even small amounts of cash significantly reduce what child welfare systems label as “neglect.”  And when "counseling" for some mental health problem or other really is needed, providing cash allows the parent to go out and buy some, just the way middle-class people with "mental health issues" do. Yet this perspective is, again, entirely lacking in the stories.  

Even as these stories point out that West Virginia spends $300 to $1,500 per day per child on those out-of-state institutions, and $31 a day for foster families, at no point is the idea of simply providing some of this cash to birth families even mentioned.  The state that often will spend $600 per day to institutionalize a child out-of-state apparently won’t spend $600 per month for a rent subsidy so a child isn’t taken away because of lack of housing or for a childcare subsidy so a child isn’t taken on a “lack of supervision” charge.  But the reporters never take note of this. 

A birth parent might have mentioned it.  So might a birth parent’s lawyer – but, again, their voices are absent amidst those 10,000 words. 

Enter “Saintly Foster Mom” 

            No typical in-depth look at foster care would be complete without Saintly Foster Mom – the character who has sacrificed so much to rescue helpless children from those evil – sorry, sick – parents, and who could do so much more if only “the system” didn’t treat her so badly.  You’ll find her in story after story – here’s another classic example.  And because they are not powerful people (though they have more power than birth parents) and have the best of intentions, I’m not naming the one in the West Virginia story – even though in that one, the subtext is unusually close to the surface.  Here’s how it begins: 

For [the foster mother], becoming a foster parent felt like a calling as early as high school. 

She remembers the little girl in her mom’s pre-K classroom, crying and wearing tattered clothes. One time the child came in with a broken eardrum. Every time [the future foster mom] visited she seemed to possess an ability to calm her. 

She dreamed of becoming a foster mother. 

“I have always felt like I was supposed to help kids in the system,” she said. 

That doesn't sound like someone who gets the confusion of poverty with neglect. 

And later there’s this: 

On the wall of their younger foster daughter’s bedroom, the [foster parents] have a print of a tree with multi-colored thumbprints of all eight kids they have fostered since 2018 on the branches. The other side lists their names, the day they arrived and the day they left. 

“When I walk in here, I see all my kids,” [the foster mother] said. 

            Your kids?  


A birth parent whose children were wrongly taken might have pointed out that there is something wrong with a total stranger saying that someone else’s children are hers.  But we never hear from such a parent.  So no one suggests that a foster parent who declares someone else’s child to be hers might not be objective about whether that child ever needed to be taken and whether that child should be reunified.

           At another point, the reporters note that one of the foster children refers to the foster parents as “mom” and “dad.” The reporters seem to see this as one more indication of how wonderful the foster parent is. 

            And then there’s this from another foster parent, speaking of the two foster children she went on to adopt: 

Two of her foster children “have a whole new life because DHHR did their job the right way,” she said. But sometimes “DHHR has bad days, DHHR makes bad choices.” 

            The rest of the story is a litany of complaints by foster parents concerning ill-treatment by DHHR and an assortment of private agencies.  They’re the same complaints aired in hundreds of other stories – and, odds are, many of them are valid. 

            But, as I’ve noted often before, it almost never seems to occur to the foster parents that if this is how the family policing agency treats them – and the agency really needs them – imagine how they treat birth parents.  It didn’t seem to occur to the reporters, either.  Like Saintly Foster Mom, the reporters seem to view the birth parents as maybe salvageable but, if not, then they’re disposable.  But that attitude creates the very system that has done all the harm the reporters have exposed. 

            Like so many other stories, these seem to have been written by earnest journalists with good intentions.  The solution to the problems of journalism is more journalism.  On its website, The GroundTruth Project declares that “We take responsibility for all of our work. When we make a mistake, we own it.”  

            Please take ownership of this one.  Please go back and try again.