Tuesday, July 11, 2023

UPDATED: When the journalism of child welfare fails, part three: Texas lawmakers are catching on; the Texas Tribune is not.

The state capitol in Austin

What the Tribune (and the Dallas Morning News) can’t face is that after decades of seeing the system that calls itself “child welfare” do enormous harm to children, people across the political spectrum are coming together and finding common ground. They've come to understand that due process for families is the best way to ensure children’s rights and child safety.

The online news site Texas Tribune has improved its coverage of the family policing system (a more accurate term than “child welfare” system) compared to how it handled these issues when it was founded in 2009.  But it still has a long way to go. 

The Tribune is still pushing the Big Lie of American “child welfare” – the idea that any bill that protects children from being traumatized by the family police and forced into the hellscape of Texas foster care is a “parents’ rights” bill that supposedly comes at the expense of child safety.  And they do it with a slightly revised version of the standard Texas twist; the longstanding false claim that any such legislation must be part of a vast right-wing conspiracy! 

I previously discussed a fearmongering Texas Tribune story about one of the bills.  The theme of the latest story can be boiled down to: The Texas foster care system is horrible! How dare the legislature try to keep more kids out of it!  At one point, the reporter simply decrees on her own authority that one law is “extreme.” 

To understand the extent to which the Tribune keeps misleading Texans about these bills, we need to start with what the bills actually do. 

One bill requires that families get the equivalent of a Miranda warning when the family police are at the door. That is, they must be informed of rights they already have.  Contrary to the Tribune’s latest story, they are not given any new rights. 

● That bill also curbs hidden foster care – or what should be called blackmail placements, in which families are coerced into “voluntary” placements of their children, usually with relatives, that are anything but voluntary.  The most recent data are old, but they indicate more than 60% of Texas placements occur this way – and they’re not even included in the figures Texas reports to the federal government, or to the public, as entries into care. 

Another bill largely (though not completely) replaces anonymous reporting to the state’s child abuse hotline with confidential reporting.  That is, the accused still won’t know who accused them but, in most cases, the family police agency will. 

Another bill bolsters legal representation for families – something that has been proven to curb needless foster care with no compromise of safety. 

● And another bill simply requires the family police and judges to document the “reasonable efforts” they made to prevent removal of a child to foster care and to prevent termination of children’s rights to their parents (a more accurate term than termination of parental rights).  

Again, this law does not give families any new rights. “Reasonable efforts” have been required by federal law since 1980 – and routinely ignored.  This bill doesn’t even stop Texas family police from continuing to ignore the requirement – they just have to state what, if anything, they did to comply with it! 

The vast bipartisan conspiracy 

All of these bills passed with bipartisan support – most of them nearly unanimously. 

That’s important because of a decades-long insistence by some Texas media on putting a false ideological framing on these issues.  (Some of the reasons for this are discussed in the report we issued on Texas child welfare nearly two decades ago.)  

In Texas media, particularly the Tribune and the Dallas Morning News, any attempt to curb the vast power of the family police supposedly is part of a far-right plot to place “parents’ rights” ahead of “child safety.” 

The Dallas Morning News truly outdid itself last year when it managed to blame both an expansion of family police power and a reduction in that power on the far right.  The latest Tribune story has come up with a new bit of spin to explain away the bipartisan support for these bills. 

So with that, it’s time for a close look at the latest Texas Tribune failure. 

The reporter’s preconceived notions are clear right off the bat.  Here’s how the story begins: 

Faced with a troubled foster care system and a 12-year-long lawsuit for putting children in state custody at risk, Texas legislators this year made sweeping changes to state agencies that look after vulnerable kids removed from their homes. 

But legislators’ focus was less on conditions for children in the system and more on reducing the number of kids entering state care. 

Translation: We want you to believe those awful right-wing lawmakers cared more about coddling abusive parents than fixing the state’s horrendous foster care system! 

On the contrary. The legislative priorities reflect the fact that, at long last, lawmakers are beginning to realize that you will never be able to fix the state’s horrendous foster care system as long as the state keeps shoveling children into it in huge numbers. 

But to sell these as “parents’ rights” bills, there’s a lot you have to leave out.  So a story written by a
reporter whose bio says: “She covers how inequity plays out for children and families with an eye on the state’s foster care system” makes no mention of that inequity, even though Black and mixed-race children are torn from their families in Texas at a rate 60% above their rate in the general population – a disparity these bills are likely to curb. 

In contrast, ProPublica’s latest story about the Miranda rights bill notes that it “will in many cases benefit Black, Hispanic and low-income families who often have their lives and homes upended by CPS officers.”  The story also explains that “child welfare issues often defy typical partisan binaries.” 

But that doesn’t fit the Tribune story’s entire parents vs. kids framing.  So the Tribune story ignores inequity and instead claims that lawmakers concluded: “parents facing abuse accusations are entitled to more rights.” 

For starters, that’s grossly misleading.  None of the provisions of new laws discussed in the story give parents – or anyone else -- more rights.  The bills do things like force the family police to tell families the rights they already have and document whether they have followed existing federal law.  The one provision that arguably gives more rights – to children -- the one that helps protect them from blackmail placements – isn’t mentioned in the story. 

But the bigger problem with the story is the claim that these are “parents’ rights” bills. 

● A law that reduces the chances that children will be forced to endure the enormous trauma of a needless child abuse investigation because an angry neighbor is hiding behind anonymity to phone in a false report is a children’s rights law. 

● A law that requires the family police to simply document what, if anything, they say they tried to do to keep a child safety out of the horrors of Texas foster care – so a judge can step in when, in fact, they did little or nothing -- is a children’s rights law. 

● A law that bolsters family defense, so families have a team that can propose alternatives to cookie-cutter “service plans” doled out by the family police -- again, to spare children the horror of Texas foster care -- is a children’s rights law. 

● And a collection of laws that, together, may reduce false allegations trivial cases and cases in which family poverty is confused with “neglect” so workers have more time to find the few children in real danger is a collection of children’s rights laws. 

The ultimate unreliable source 

To bolster the false claim that these are parents’ rights bills, the reporter turns to what probably is the least reliable source in all of Texas, but a source guaranteed to support the reporter’s own view: Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA).  Indeed, she relied on the chapter of that organization which did the most comprehensive study of all to determine if its program worked -- and found that it actually did harm: the chapter in Texas. 

CASA is a particularly odd choice for a reporter whose beat focuses on inequity.  CASA is the program in which overwhelmingly white, middle-class amateurs with no required qualifications and maybe 40 hours of training (plus in-service so it’s OK, right?) are allowed to march into the homes of families who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately nonwhite and pass judgment upon them – judgments that, depressingly often, are rubber-stamped by the courts. 

That’s why a law review article aptly characterized CASA as “an act of white supremacy.”  

Furthermore, study after study after study shows that CASA backfires, often hurting the children it is intended to help. 

The most revealing of these was a study of Texas CASA – commissioned by Texas CASA itself.  It was released at the end of 2019.  According to that study: 

“Overall, children appointed a CASA have significantly lower odds than children without a CASA of achieving permanency.” [Emphasis added.]

Compared to children not burdened with a CASA on the case, Texas foster children with  CASAs were:

 Less likely to be reunified with their own parents.

● Less likely to find permanence in the form of guardianship by a relative.

● More likely to “age out” of foster care with no home at all.

When the study came out the Austin American-Statesman did a good story about it. The Texas Tribune ignored it. 

Yet somehow this is the organization we are supposed to trust when it invokes the false claim that child safety and family preservation are opposites that need to be balanced. 

So the Texas Tribune story gives us this: 

“We’re in a period in history right now where things are swinging very much towards having the smallest possible system, really prioritizing parents’ rights,” said Sarah Crockett, the director of public policy at foster kid advocacy group Texas CASA. 

For decades everyone in the system has claimed that they want the smallest possible system – that they only want to see children taken as a last resort.  Yet now, when some small steps are taken toward doing it, “smallest possible system” somehow is equated with “parents’ rights.” 

Crokett then offers the classic example of the Big Lie: implying that when you make the system smaller, children are less safe: 

“This system is traumatic and stressful for children and parents. I absolutely do think that we should do everything that we can to keep the child with their family,” Crockett said. “And it’s also true that child abuse is still happening. And so how do we balance those two things? 

Except that well over a decade ago, a Texas think tank – a liberal Texas think tank -- released a study debunking the idea that doing more to keep families together compromises child safety. On the contrary, it’s the massive overload of systems with all those false allegations trivial cases and poverty cases that makes it harder to find children in real danger. 

The bias of the center 

One of the problems for the Tribune in pushing the whole idea that these bills all spring from the minds of right-wing “parents’ rights” fanatics is the fact that so many of the bills passed nearly unanimously (something never mentioned in the story).  The solution is to stereotype both sides as extreme while groups like CASA – and the Texas Tribune -- are simply suggesting that, as journalists love to proclaim, the truth, of course, lies somewhere in between. 

So after accepting CASA’s false characterization the story declares that the new laws represent 

an approach supported by both ​​social conservatives who tout family values and progressive child welfare abolitionists who want to do away with the system. 

In the Texas Tribune’s eyes, only extremists support these “parents’ rights” bills; whereas good, sensible moderates oppose them.  This is a classic example of what’s been aptly called “the bias of the center” – the idea that the truth always lies “somewhere in between” – and somehow taking that stand in a news story, and stereotyping everyone you disagree with as an extremist, isn’t bias. 

In this case there’s a particular problem: By that logic, almost every Democrat in the Texas Legislature is an abolitionist “who want(s) to do away with the system.”  If that were true you’d think they would have proposed stronger bills. 

No, what the Tribune (and the Dallas Morning News) can’t face is that after decades of seeing the system that calls itself “child welfare” do enormous harm to children, people across the political spectrum are coming together and finding common ground.  They've come to understand that due process for families is the best way to ensure children’s rights and child safety.  

So the Tribune presents us with a lawyer, who, apparently referring to these bills and one that became law in 2021 said: “The failing in the laws is that the standard is so high now for a child to be removed.” 

In fact, none of this year’s bills changes the standard for removal. The one that became law in 2021 (again after passing with huge bipartisan majorities) said only that before branding families guilty of neglect and tearing children from everyone they know and love there should be an “immediate danger” to the child.  That’s because if the danger isn’t immediate then there’s time to find ways to remove the risk instead of the child.  Why in the world wouldn’t you try that first? 

The anonymous reporting bill 

The first bill discussed specifically in the Tribune story is the one largely replacing anonymous reporting with confidential reporting. Here, the reporter doesn’t bother with the figleaf of finding someone else to say what she thinks, instead she simply declares flatly that the bill “takes an extreme approach to weeding out false reports.” 

The story’s discussion of this bill is misleading in several ways. 

The story declares that “the anonymity can protect those afraid of retaliation.” At no point does the story explain why confidential reporting, in which the accused still doesn’t know the name of the accuser, fails to do that.  

The story then repeats this from that previous misleading Texas Tribune story about the bill: 

About 1,000 of the 12,473 anonymous reports made in 2022 led to findings of abuse, according to Texans Care for Children. 

Like the previous story, this one leaves a whole lot out:

      ● “Findings of abuse” is a gross exaggeration.  The 1,000 reports were “substantiated,” but that means only that a caseworker checked a box on a form guessing it is slightly more likely than not that something that meets Texas’ definitions of abuse and neglect occurred. 

        Of those 1,000 cases, it is likely that 770 did not involve sexual abuse or any form of physical abuse.

      So what the numbers actually show is that, of all anonymous reports alleging abuse or neglect in Texas in 2022, 92% were flat-out false.  That means caseworkers handling these cases spent 92% of their time harassing innocent families, inflicting trauma on their children – and wasting time that could have been used to find children in real danger.

      Add in the cases that were “substantiated” but involved neither physical nor sexual abuse, and the figure rises to more than 98%.  That’s 98% of workers’ time spent on cases that are nothing like the horror stories.

At no point in the Texas Tribune story is anyone quoted favoring the bill.  But, again echoing the previous story, the reporter gladly invokes the ultimate in fearmongering to oppose it: 

“None of us in this room want any child to suffer abuse or neglect. And I would hate for us to vote for a policy where the tradeoff is ... [having] a child possibly die from abuse or neglect,” [Sen. José] Menéndez said on the Senate floor. 

Texas Tribune readers never learn about that liberal think tank study showing that encouraging more reports, anonymous or otherwise, does not reduce child abuse deaths.  They never learn about the research showing that it is the overload of false allegations trivial cases and poverty cases that actually makes it more like that that you could have “a child possibly die from abuse or neglect.” 

Suckered by a McLawsuit 

Part of the blame for all this lies with the group that brought the massive doomed-to-fail Texas McLawsuit in the first place: the group that calls itself Children’s Rights.  Both CR and the group that spun off from it and which shares responsibility for the Texas McLawsuit, A Better Childhood, have abysmal records of filing almost identical suits across the country that ignore the problem at the root of all the others – needless removal of children.  Instead, they demand “solutions” that don’t always fail completely, but often leave states with the same lousy systems only bigger.  

That’s why Michigan’s leading child advocate recently blasted the consent decree resulting from a very similar Children’s Rights McLawsuit in that state, declaring that the Michigan consent decree has: 

if anything, made the situation much worse because it’s funneling money from front-end stuff to really fund our foster care system. 

The Texas lawsuit demands much the same – and it sounds like that’s exactly as the Texas Tribune thinks it should be.  

The Texas suit also is another example of CR’s excellent public policy work and its lousy lawsuits working at cross purposes.  In recent years CR has done bold work calling out racism in family policing and demanding things like the repeal of horrible laws such as the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act. 

But in its Texas lawsuit Complaint (Paragraph 282) CR demands stricter enforcement of ASFA. 

None of this excuses how Texas has responded to the lawsuit – by fighting it tooth and nail instead of proposing an alternative: a consent decree that emphasizes services and due process protections to keep children in their own homes.  (It’s not too late to try that, by the way.) 

But none of this is hindsight either.  We knew the McLawsuit was doomed to fail and we said so early on.  Now, the Texas legislature is figuring out that the only way to fix foster care is to have less of it – whether the Texas Tribune or the Dallas Morning News like it or not. 


KWTX-TV reports on a case in which six children were taken away.  All of them, even the youngest, age 2, apparently were institutionalized.  Now that child is dead.  According to the news story “this all happened because of a call alleging [the mother] was smoking marijuana.” And KXXV-TV reports the call was anonymous and the mother passed "numerous drug tests."  (They also report there was an allegation of "violence" - but no indication there was even an allegation of violence against the children.)

Apparently, the children were never in any danger, because shortly after boy’s death, the Texas family police agency gave all the other children back and closed the case.

So yeah, tell us again Texas lawyer how “the failing in the laws is that the standard is so high now for a child to be removed.”  And tell us again, Texas lawmaker, how the "tradeoff" for banning most anonymous reporting is "[having] a child possibly die."