Thursday, December 23, 2021

It’s a Christmas miracle! Tampa Bay Times discovers wrongful removal

Anybody see any ghosts around here?

I don’t know how it happened.  Maybe three ghosts paid a recent visit to some reporters and editors one night.  But whatever the reason, after years of marching in lockstep with the Miami Herald – ignoring wrongful removal and sometimes fomenting foster-care panic -- the Tampa Bay Times has discovered that maybe all those children don’t need to be in foster care after all! 

Of course, the discovery comes way too late for all the children whose lives were destroyed by needless foster care – and the story fails to acknowledge the Times’ own role in making the Tampa Bay area such an outlier.  But it’s a start. 

● The story calls out the hypocrisy of Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. She sheriff has launched a criminal investigation of the former “lead agency” overseeing foster care in the region, Eckerd Connects, because of appalling conditions in foster care.  But all the while, Gualtieri’s office continues to shovel kids into those very conditions by tearing apart families at one of the highest rates in the state.  Where have I heard that before? 

● There’s a story, albeit buried toward the end, about children torn from their mother just because the mother was a victim of domestic violence. Where have I heard that before? 

● And, again at the very end, there’s a good discussion of how the Broward County Sheriff’s office reformed to keep children safe while taking proportionately far fewer than Pinellas and Hillsborough.  Broward used to be an outlier, too, taking many children needlessly. But then, according to the story, 

In an unusual step, then-Broward Sheriff Scott Israel hired former Department of Children and Families deputy regional director Kim Gorsuch to run his child protective division. In Pinellas and Hillsborough, that position is handled by officers at the rank of major or captain. 

Gorsuch found that investigators were too often equating poverty with neglect, they didn’t understand addiction and might remove a child because one household member was using drugs even when another relative in the home could care for the child. 

She also found that Black children were disproportionately being removed from two high-poverty ZIP codes. 

When investigators told her they were trying to keep children safe, she posed a simple question: Are Broward kids really more unsafe than kids in the rest of Florida? 

The limits of miracles 

Even miracles have their limits, though.  

High up in the story, Robin Rosenberg of Florida Children First – a group which, itself, has long been a big part of the problem, is allowed to frame the issue as, in essence: Poverty makes those people bad parents who neglect their kids.  She tells us, in effect: Well yes, the kids could remain home but only with lots of “social services” and “monitoring” – in other words, constant, onerous surveillance and pointless hoops to jump through.  Only much farther down, in that section about Broward County, do we learn that poverty itself often is confused with neglect, and that is mentioned only in passing. 

Then Rosenberg tells us the high rate of removal “is particularly frustrating in a region where millions are spent on child abuse prevention programs.” Because her mindset  – that the parents may not be evil but they sure are sick, sick, sick! – runs so deep, it apparently never occurs to Rosenberg (or the Times) that the problem might be that a lot of prevention money goes to the wrong places: largely help that makes the helpers feel good, such as “counseling” and “parent education,” instead of concrete help to deal with poverty. 

And while Gualtieri blames “inadequate social services,” for why his office supposedly has to tear apart families at one of the highest rates in the state, he is not asked why he doesn’t use some of his own budget to provide those services.  As we pointed out in a previous post,  Gualtieri himself said: 

“You don’t whine about it. … You figure out a way to make it happen."

 So why can’t the Pinellas County Sheriff’s office take some of its budget and use it for emergency cash assistance, and rent subsidies, and housing repairs, and childcare subsidies.  Or at least follow the example of this police officer in Kansas City, Missouri. 

Across the bay in Hillsborough County, their sheriff’s office blames high rates of removal on substance use.  But only much farther down, again in that short section about Broward County, is there a hint that the knee-jerk response to substance use among poor people should not be to traumatize their children with needless foster care.  (That is almost never the knee-jerk response to substance use among rich people). 

We also don’t know if this story signals real change at the Tampa Bay Times – or if it’s more like: Oh alright, we’ll cover this angle once and then go back to business as usual. 

We know only that it’s a start.  And that it’s still not too late for three ghosts to drop in on some journalists at the Miami Herald.  But, come to think of it, maybe that wouldn't be such a good idea. Knowing the Herald, they'd probably just write an editorial urging DCF to take away Tiny Tim because the Cratchits are so poor.