Sunday, August 13, 2023

When the journalism of child welfare fails, part four: A Washington State news site discovers the trauma and tragedy of false allegations of child abuse – well, sort of.

Wow. Things sure got tough for Silvia Zarate after she was falsely accused of child abuse.  She had to fight her way through a long, cumbersome appeals process before she could get overturned a determination by a caseworker for the Washington State family police agency (a more accurate term than “child welfare” agency) that the allegation against her was “founded.” 

But, as the online news site Investigate West explains: 

Zarate’s ordeal is far from finished, as she continues to struggle with her employment because the abuse charge still comes up on background checks. She said she has wiped out her retirement, gone into debt and has racked up more than $180,000 in attorney fees fighting the abuse allegation. 

She’s struggling with employment because she was fired from her job.  She also was criminally charged – charges ultimately dismissed.  As she explained to Investigate West: 

“Just because I won doesn’t mean I recovered anything. I still have to go through all this turmoil.” 

Investigate West goes on to tell us: 

To Zarate, it felt vindictive. She felt she was presumed guilty and needed to prove her innocence rather than the opposite. 

“They rushed to judgment,” she said. “They didn’t really investigate it well.” 

At last!  A big mainstream news organization in Washington State understands the enormous harm of false allegations, rushing to judgment, sloppy investigations and no meaningful redress!  

Well – not quite.  And if you don’t know what’s coming next, you don’t know either this Blog or Investigate West.  But here’s a hint: When it comes to covering “child welfare,” Investigate West isn’t really a news organization at all – it’s the de-facto p.r. arm of the Foster Parents Association of Washington State.  You can read about some of their long, ugly track record here. 

So you’ve probably guessed: The only reason this falsely accused parent got such sympathetic treatment – in fact, the only reason Investigate West talked to her at all – is because she was a foster parent, and the accuser was one of her foster children.  

I don’t think this is primarily the reporter’s fault.  She’s relatively new to Investigate West and this seems to be her first story about foster care.  The fault lies mostly with her editors who, at every turn, lionize foster parents and demonize birth parents.

As for Zarate, there’s something else worth noting: The job from which she was fired was caseworker for the state family police agency. 

So when the story ends with Zarate saying: “They have all the resources and us little people, foster parents, we don’t have those kinds of resources,” she doesn’t just forget who has even fewer resources – impoverished birth parents – she also seems to forget that, until her ordeal began, she was an integral part of “they.” 

What Zarate endured is, indeed, horrible.  I hope she wins the $9 million she is seeking from a state fund as compensation for her ordeal.  

But it is only a fraction of the trauma endured by poor families who don’t know the system from the inside, and don’t have $180,000 for legal fees.  But as we’ve seen over the years, Investigate West views birth parents as, at worst, evil, at best sick! sick! sick! – and certainly not worth talking to, much less doing an entire story about how they are guilty until proven innocent. 

And while the story mentions only the suffering Zarate endured, when this happens to birth families those who suffer most are the children – often traumatized by needless investigations and stripsearches at best, consignment to the chaos of foster care at worst. 

Nor does this story include the usual “Big Lie” of American child welfare that always turns up when
birth parents challenge the system.  No state legislator or leader of a mainstream “child advocacy” group coming out of the woodwork to say what they always say when the system traumatizes birth families: Yes, what happened is unfortunate, but we have to balance “parents rights” against child safety.  

On the contrary: The whole thrust of the Investigate West story is that this horrible treatment of foster parents is going to drive them away, and then boy will we be sorry!  So there! 

With no sense of irony, the co-president of the Foster Parents Association of Washington State complains that 

Once you get crosswise with the department, it’s really, really, really difficult to get back to where you want to be. 

Getting the priorities right 

Investigate West even finds a way to effectively blame the problems of foster parents on – birth parents! The story quotes a family police agency supervisor who 

said he’s heard foster parents increasingly express feeling underappreciated in their role in recent years, perhaps partially as an unintended consequence of Washington policy shifting to prefer kinship placements and increase family reunifications. 

“If kids can be with family, relatives, neighbors or friends, that’s going to do a better job in a lot of cases of being less disruptive to that child’s life,” [the supervisor] said. But, “I think the context of this is that foster parents kind of feel forgotten about and pushed to the bottom of the pile, by not just the agency, but the whole state. When the reality is, we absolutely need them.” 

So, in other words, the real purpose of the foster system is to pander to the egos and rescue fantasies of stranger foster parents. 

If, on the other hand, you believe the purpose of the foster system is to help children, then the priorities that supervisor describes are exactly right: Keeping children in their own families is almost always better for children’s wellbeing – and safer – than placement with stranger foster parents.  When that truly isn’t possible, kinship foster care has been shown to be far better than placement with strangers.  So yes, stranger foster care parents should be a lower priority – in fact the only worse option is group homes and institutions. 

Good foster parents, the ones who really care about the kids, get that. 

Are foster parents persecuted? 

As for foster parents being persecuted, the evidence suggests otherwise.  As of 2019, the most recent year for which I could find data, Washington State claimed to find abuse in only 0.06% of foster homes.  If that figure is correct, it means if you put 1,666 former Washington State foster children in a room and asked: “How many of you were abused during your last year in foster care?” only one would raise her or his hand.  

In contrast, independent studies, including one specific to Washington State and Oregon, consistently find abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes (and the rate in group homes and institutions is even worse.)  That’s a rate at least 400 times higher than what Washington State’s family police agency claims to find.  (In fairness, the studies generally cover the entire time a child is in foster care, and, on average, children are trapped in foster care for a little under two years.  On the other hand, the study methodology often excludes some kinds of abuse. But, just to give Washington State the benefit of the doubt, let’s not just double but triple their official single-year estimate.  Then the independent studies find only 133 times more abuse in foster care.) 


So if there is a systematic campaign by the Washington State family police agency to persecute foster parents with false allegations of child abuse – they’re not very good at it.  

The vast undercount of abuse in foster care is precisely because when they investigate abuse in foster care family police agencies are, in effect, investigating themselves.  After all, they put the child in the home where she or he was abused.  It’s also because they don’t want to lose foster homes, and go through all the work of finding new placements for foster children.  So when it comes to abuse in foster care, there is an enormous incentive for caseworkers to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil and write no evil in the case file. 

And remember: Washington State is where a stranger foster mother and foster grandmother could allegedly kidnap the foster child in their care and flee all the way to Vietnam, and it was days before the family police agency even noticed.  I probably do need to remind you, since Investigate West never bothered to cover that story.  Neither did the Seattle Times.  You can be sure had birth parents kidnapped their child from a foster home, both news organizations would be all over the story – and Investigate West would do a huge feature about foster parents “living in fear.” 

The story about Zarate isn’t even the first pity-the-poor-falsely-accused-foster-parents story Investigate West has done. They did essentially the same story in 2020 (and I wrote pretty much the same blog post in response).  

No one should have to endure what Silvia Zarate endured.  But it would have been easier to sympathize if at some point she’d said something like this: “I wonder sometimes, did I do this to any families on my caseload? Did I get it wrong, substantiate an allegation when I shouldn’t have, and put some other family through this?  Did I inadvertently traumatize their children? And if this is how horrible it is for me, what is it like for birth parents who can’t fight back?” 

And if there really is a systematic campaign to persecute foster parents it would have been nice if someone at Investigate West had thought to say: “They really need foster parents – if this is how foster parents are treated, how are they treating birth parents – and what is that doing to their children?  Maybe we should do a story about that.” 

But there is nothing like that in the story from either Zarate nor the head of the foster parents association.  Either they didn’t say it, or they did but it never got into the story. 

There is only a hint that some of this may have occurred to Zarate.  She’s not actually quoted, but the reporter does say: 

Zarate said she hopes the department takes impacts such as she’s endured more seriously when approaching investigations of foster parents as well as biological parents. 

The words “biological parents” (and biological is pejorative, by the way) are words # 1,730 and 1,731 in a 1,761-word story.