Monday, July 10, 2023

When the journalism of child welfare fails, part two: A reporter in Scranton has her facts wrong – and her blunder is hurting children

Lackawanna County, Pa., County Courthouse

UPDATE, JULY 11: We reached out to the Times-Tribune and, to their great credit, they have removed the story from their website and are reviewing our concerns.  

UPDATE, JULY 17: The Times-Tribune published a new story about these issues. It still has serious flaws, but it is free of factual error and no longer implies that an alleged emphasis on keeping families together was responsible for the horror stories.

Most of the time, when I take issue with the journalism of child welfare, it involves reporters who mean well but have taken to heart decades of conventional wisdom.  They’ve been as conditioned by health terrorism as the rest of us.  That’s why I usually don’t name the reporter, or at least don’t emphasize it, and focus on institutional failures. 

But the lead story in Sunday’s Scranton, Pa. Times-Tribune by Terrie Morgan-Besecker is so breathtakingly flat-out factually wrong concerning the most basic statistics that I’m making an exception. 

The story involves classic, tragic horror story cases.  The local D.A. has taken advantage of it all, bringing criminal charges against caseworkers and supervisors.  And now Morgan-Besecker is piling on with the false claim that, as the headline put it: “Lackawanna County's child welfare agency places far fewer children in foster care than other counties.”  According to Morgan-Besecker, the main horror story case “reflects a pattern in Lackawanna County, which has consistently placed far fewer children in foster care than several similarly sized counties since 2017…” 

Normally at this point, I would discuss the research showing that there is no correlation between rates of child removal and horror story cases; sadly they happen everywhere.  So there is no “pattern.” In fact, the more you overload a system with false allegations, trivial cases, and cases in which poverty is confused with neglect the more likely it is that the cases that become the horror stories will be missed. And if the cases Morgan-Besecker cites supposedly show a "pattern" of taking too few children, what does the even more horrific case of the rape, torture and murder of foster and adopted child Susan Hunsicker (known in news accounts as Grace Packer) elsewhere in Pennsylvania say about a "pattern" of taking too many and taking them needlessly?  

The basic errors of fact 

But, as the lawyers would say, we don’t even have to reach that issue here.  Because Morgan-Besecker’s claim about Lackawanna County taking fewer children is simply wrong on its face.  She piles error on top of error on top of error.  Let's go through them one-by-one.

● Morgan-Besecker compares Lackawanna County to five other counties: Berks, Erie, Lehigh, Luzerne and York.  Using data from an annual report from Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children she gives a figure for raw numbers for each county and then claims that the “similarly sized counties” had “significantly higher placement rates.” 

But it turns out the counties are not so similar.  When you compare the actual rates – that is numbers compared to child population -- two of the five comparison counties have lower rates than Lackawanna and a third is only slightly higher. 

Here’s how it comes out: 

County            Children “served” in foster care per thousand

Berks               4.4

Lehigh             4.5

Lackawanna  5.3

York                5.7

Erie                 8.2

Luzerne           11.2

It’s not as if Morgan-Besecker would have to go find population figures and run these numbers herself.  Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children obligingly provides the rate per thousand right under the raw number.  Like this: 

But that’s only the start of the problem. 

● Morgan-Besecker never explains why she chose these particular counties except to say they’re similarly sized.  In fact, there are several other counties that are closer in population to Lackawanna than some she included.  Look what happens when they are added to the mix: 

County            Children “served” in foster care per thousand

Butler              3.6

Berks               4.4

Lehigh             4.5

Westmoreland 4.5

Cumberland    4.8

Northampton    5.3

Lackawanna  5.3

York                5.7

Monroe           5.7

Erie                 8.2

Luzerne           11.2 

● In any event, Morgan-Besecker used the wrong line in the Pennsylvania Partnerships report for each county.  She used a line clearly labeled “Unduplicated Number of Children Served – All children in Foster Care During the Year.”  This is a figure that combines entries into care over the course of a year with the number of children already in care at the start of the year.  Check out the description:  

This figure can vary for all sorts of reasons.  It does not, in fact, measure what Morgan-Besecker claims it measures: “the number of children placed in foster care … in 2021, the latest year for which data is available.” 

There actually is a line in the Pennsylvania Partnerships report for each county that does measure this.  It’s the last line on the same page.  It’s the one conveniently labeled “Children Entering Foster Care – All Entries into Foster Care During the Year.”  This is what it looks like: 

When you use those figures, even the raw numbers tell a different story.  Berks County actually took fewer children and Lehigh took only six more.  Oh, and one other thing: The rate of removal in Lackawanna County turns out to be almost identical to the Pennsylvania statewide average.  (Unfortunately, this line does not compare rates, but the population data for such a comparison are readily available from the Census Bureau.) 

This still doesn’t tell the whole story.  Because poverty is both a cause of actual abuse and, far more often, something confused with neglect, the fairest way to measure rates of removal is to compare entries into foster care with the impoverished child population in each jurisdiction. Do it that way and, looking only at the counties Morgan-Besecker chose, the results are – the same. The rates of removal are lower – in fact, they’re a lot lower – in Berks County and Lehigh County.  And the rate of removal in Lackawanna County is very close to the state average.  (Again, you can get these data by comparing entries into care to Census Bureau data for impoverished children in each county.) 

An odd county to use as a model

The first county Morgan-Besecker singles out in her skewed comparison does indeed take away far more children than Lackawanna County or any of the others.  It’s Luzerne County.  But then, Morgan-Besecker has shown a fondness for that county’s approach for decades. 

I first noticed Morgan-Besecker’s byline on a story from 2002 when she was at the Times Leader in Wilkes-Barre.  The story no longer appears to be available online, but it's in NCCPR's database of "child welfare" news coverage. The headline on that one was: “From families first to kids first: The death of a girl in 1999 is a local case that brings into focus the new stress on protecting a child over preserving a family.”  The story goes on to quote the then head of the Luzerne County family police agency (a more accurate term than "child welfare" agency) almost bragging about the increase in the numbers of children his agency tore from their homes. 

The ugliest quote came from Pennsylvania’s single most fanatical advocate for tearing apart families, Frank Cervone.  Then, and until quite recently, Cervone ran Philadelphia’s rough equivalent of a CASA program. Here’s what he said in that 2002 story: 

"What AFSA has done is it says to the family, 'get well or get on.' We can't spend years trying to rehabilitate a family if those years are going to cost the child their childhood." 

As for opponents of ASFA, they were dismissed as “parents’ rights advocates” – the classic Big Lie of American child welfare - and one we were permitted by the Times-Leader to rebut in an op-ed column at the time.  

Now, in fairness, a lot of reporters believed the b.s. in Morgan-Besecker's 2002 story at the time. We didn’t yet have as much data showing that it was ASFA itself that would cost hundreds of thousands of children their childhoods – though the trend already was clear.  That's why plenty of children's rights advocates opposed it then and oppose it now.  Back then, Cervone was the Godsource for Pennsylvania media – and that’s one reason why, until recently, Philadelphia tore apart families at one of the highest rates among America’s biggest cities.  

And it wasn’t until five or six years later that the Juvenile Law Center exposed the kids-for-cash scandal that would make Luzerne County notorious across America. 

In the intervening years, Morgan-Besecker did write the occasional story about Luzerne County families who said their children had been wrongfully removed, and about failures in the county’s public defender office leading to missed deadlines for appeals.  And she covered the kids-for-cash scandal.

But now comes a story in which she still seems to think Luzerne County is some kind of model.  While other reporters have learned to treat his pronouncements with skepticism, Besecker still backs up the misleading out-of-context figures in her story with inflammatory quotes by, yes, Frank Cervone.

And once again, the token comment warning that the criminal charges against the caseworkers are likely to lead to more removals is presented solely as something that would be “unfair to families who don’t deserve to have their children removed” – as opposed to unfair to children who don’t deserve the trauma of needless foster care and the high risk of abuse in foster care just because their caseworker was scared of the district attorney – and/or the local newspaper. 

Responding to the data (or whatever he was told about the data) the D.A. declared that "The numbers speak for themselves.” 

They do.  But they’re not saying what either the D.A. or Terrie Morgan-Beseker says they’re saying.