Wednesday, June 26, 2024

NBC News ignores the real cause of West Virginia’s child welfare catastrophe – so their story may make the catastrophe even worse

The journalists were so trapped in their own “master narrative” – their preconceived notions going in -- that of course they wouldn’t think of actually speaking to a parent whose child was wrongfully removed in the child removal capital of America.  But even when the former head of a state foster parent association tried to tell them, they weren’t interested.

When it comes to tearing apart families and consigning children to the chaos of foster care the extent to which West Virginia is an outlier is breathtaking. 

Compare entries into foster care to the total child population and West Virginia is the child removal capital of America – by far – tearing apart families at a rate five times the national average.  

           PER THOUSAND CHILDREN, 2022

But hey, West Virginia is a poor state, so you should really factor in poverty, right?  Agreed. Compare entries into foster care to the impoverished child population and West Virginia still is the child removal capital of America – tearing apart families at a rate more than four times the national average. 


Looked at another way: 

Right now, American family policing agencies (a more accurate term than “child welfare” agencies) take away about 186,000 children every year.  If every state were like West Virginia, American family policing agencies would take away 930,000 children every year.  

Right now, on any given day, nearly 369,000 children are stuck in officially-measured foster care.  (The figure does not include hidden foster care.)  If every state were like West Virginia, the officially-measured American foster care population would be more than 1.8 million! 

Human Rights Watch, a group best known for exposing human rights abuses abroad, singled out West Virginia and three other systems for scrutiny in a study of the human rights abuses of American family policing called “If I Wasn’t Poor, I Wouldn’t Be Unfit.” 

But when NBC News decided to take an in-depth look at the West Virginia system – or, more likely, was spoon-fed a “master narrative” by one of the groups that brings largely worthless McLawsuits all over the country – they implied that this massive exercise in family destruction was justified. 

The phrase “master narrative” was coined by the late William Woo, when he was editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It is not something handed down from above. It's not some kind of media conspiracy. (As a former editor of mine liked to say, "There are no media conspiracies; we're not that well organized.")  Rather, the master narrative is simply the preconceived notions reporters bring with them to a story.  The best reporters seek out a wide variety of sources, including those who might challenge their master narrative.  That did not happen here. 

Ironically echoing exactly what the West Virginia family policing agency would want the story to say, the website version of the NBC story presents a master narrative that boils down to: Well, what do you expect?  The parents must all be druggie moms doped up on opioids!  Or as the story put it: 

West Virginia has the country’s highest rate of children in foster care—a figure that’s four times higher than that of the U.S. as a whole. Ravaged by the opioid epidemic, the state has seen its foster care population balloon by 57% over the past decade, overwhelming an already strapped child welfare system. 

The version that aired on NBC Nightly News was even more blunt – and even more wrong.  According to that story: 

West Virginia’s foster care system is maxed out, largely because of the state’s intractable opioid epidemic. 

It’s not just that this facile claim assumes that any parent who uses opioids can’t raise a child  (though it didn't stop opioid abuser and alcoholic Betty Ford), it’s not just that NBC neglected to mention what Human Rights Watch found by actually talking to birth parents and looking at court records: that West Virginia also takes children if their parents are receiving medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction.  The story also fails to take into account some basic data. 

West Virginia claims that 53% of entries into care involved some form of substance abuse – not just opioid abuse (and, of course, this included those medication-assisted treatment cases).  This is only a claim, since children are routinely placed in foster care before a court decides if there really was substance abuse or any other reason to take the child.  But let’s assume the figure is correct.  Let’s even assume that these entries are justified. 

What about the other 47%?  West Virginia’s snatch-and-grab mentality runs so deep that these entries alone still would leave West Virginia tearing apart families at a rate double the national average. 

In other words, if the scourge of drug abuse magically disappeared from West Virginia tomorrow, the state still would be a huge outlier when it comes to tearing apart families. 

Or let’s look at it another way: NBC blames opioids for the fact that the state “has seen its foster care population balloon by 57% over the past decade,” implying that before the opioid epidemic West Virginia’s rate of tearing apart families was pretty typical. 

But it wasn’t. 

Ten years ago, again factoring in rates of child poverty, the proportion of children in West Virginia foster care already was double the national average.  The proportion torn from their families over the course of a year already was more than triple the national average.  (Past year figures are at this link by clicking on the “State Dataset.”) 

West Virginia isn’t the foster care capital of America because of opioids.  West Virginia is the foster-care capital of America because of a deeply ingrained culture of child removal that predates opioids and led to a knee-jerk response to opioids. 

No mention of racism 

The NBC News story also never bothered to examine the role of racism.  Yes, there are Black people in West Virginia.  Not very many, it’s true, but the state’s family police agency has effectively painted a target on the backs of every one of them.  

● According to a recent study, at some point during their childhoods, nearly one-third of Black children in West Virginia will be forced into foster care.  No other state even comes close. For the four states tied for second place, it’s 18% - which would seem appalling if not for West Virginia. 

● And 14% of Black West Virginia children will, at some point, be taken from their parents forever.  In the state with the second highest rate of termination of parental rights for Black children, it’s 6% - which, again, would seem appalling if not for West Virginia. 

And it’s not like nobody tried to tell the NBC journalists. 

Oh, no.  They didn’t actually speak to birth parents – of course not! (Or, if they did, they didn’t include them in the story.) 

Consider how that compares to covering other issues. 

No journalist for a mainstream news organization, particularly none who is part of a national news
organization’s “investigative unit” would do a story on the criminal justice system and speak only to crime victims, prosecutors and judges, while ignoring the accused and defense attorneys.  But in child welfare, journalists treating birth parents as too inherently subhuman to speak to is common.  This is especially true in West Virginia, where NBC News is simply
following the lead of local media. 

Since all birth parents are stereotyped as bad, the producers reached out to the kind of parent stereotyped as good – a foster parent.  Specifically, the former head of the West Virginia Foster Adoptive and Kinship Parents Network, Marissa Sanders. 

But what Sanders said apparently came as a surprise.  So much so, that NBC chose not even to make clear who she is.  Buried deep in the website version we find what journalists call the “to be sure graf” the token paragraph that contradicts the journalist’s master narrative. After noting the high rate of terminations of children’s rights to their parents (a more accurate term than termination of parental rights) but making no mention of the mindboggling figures specific to Black children, the story gives us this one to-be-sure graf: 

Marissa Sanders, a foster care reform advocate, said she thinks Child Protective Service workers are overburdened in part because they are investigating too many families that don’t need to be investigated. “They are chasing poverty cases about kids with dirty clothes or someone who forgot lunch and then they don’t have time to deal with cases where a kid is being sexually abused,” she said. 

But having given that a token mention, it’s then forgotten.  And in the broadcast version seen by millions on NBC Nightly News this isn’t mentioned at all.  

Enter the McLawsuit 

So it's no wonder the story goes on to extoll all sorts of wrong answers – starting with, yes, a McLawsuit. 

But you see, according to NBC News, this isn’t just any lawsuit.  It’s a “sweeping class-action lawsuit” that means “West Virginia faces a legal reckoning.” 

Not likely. 

The track record of these particular McLawsuits (essentially the same suit brought all over the country) is that it will lead to years of litigation, a consent decree, court-appointed monitors, court monitoring reports on failure to abide by the consent decree, hearings on the failure to abide by the consent decree, lectures by the judge, more monitoring reports, more failure to abide by the decree, more hearings, more lectures, a modified decree, failure to adhere to the modified decree, more lectures, a modification of the modified decree and finally, after five or ten or 20 years or more, exit from monitoring with a system that is no better and may well be worse. 

That’s not because the description of the conditions in these systems found in these lawsuits is inaccurate.  On the contrary, the systems are every bit as horrible as the McLawsuits allege.  The problem is the same as the problem with NBC’s story: They ignore the fundamental cause of everything that’s gone wrong – needless removal of children often when family poverty is confused with neglect. 

Two groups bring most of these McLawsuits.  Both were founded by Marcia Lowry.  First, she founded “Children’s Rights,” then she left to form “A Better Childhood.”  Marcia’s departure was good for Children’s Rights.  It’s taken a while, but Children’s Rights appears to have become disenchanted with the McLawsuit approach.  First their rhetoric and now, their most recent litigation, is zeroing in on needless removal and racial bias.  But not Marcia.  Her McLawsuits are the same old same old.  

They don’t always fail.  But the rare successes all involve situations in which Marcia briefly flirted with groups interested in taking fewer children or in which agencies themselves said, in effect, to hell with Marcia’s micromanaging, we’re going to focus on keeping families safely together.  You can read all about the organizations, the McLawsuits and the track record of this kind of litigation here. 

To be clear: the West Virginia “child welfare” system absolutely deserves to be sued.  But the children of West Virginia deserve better litigation. 

They also deserve better journalism.  But the journalists at NBC News don’t seem to have checked Marcia’s track record, just as they didn’t check the facile explanation for West Virginia’s extreme outlier status. 

So it’s no wonder the NBC story claims that 

One of the state’s underlying issues is a lack of foster parents to take in all of the children who have entered the system over the past decade. 

Technically that’s true.  But the real problem is that so many of those children never needed to enter the system.  Were West Virginia not so fanatical about tearing apart families, the state would have plenty of foster homes for the children who really need them. 

And so, when the NBC story goes on to expose another West Virginia horror – the state’s obsession with using the worst form of “care” – institutionalization – the story itself gives the state the perfect excuse: It’s not that we want to do this, they can say, but you said yourself we have a shortage of foster parents because we simply had to take all those kids because of opioids! 

A real investigative story would have asked if perhaps West Virginia would have plenty of room in good safe foster homes right now, if it simply reduced the rate at which it tore apart families to, say, the national average (The national average is, itself, too high, by the way – but it would be huge progress in West Virginia.) 

Then comes more standard master narrative stuff.  According to the story: 

The problem with the system, experts say, begins with overburdened Child Protective Services workers. While the state has hired more workers and raised salaries, it’s not unusual to have caseloads of 100 cases, three former CPS employees told NBC News. 

No. The problem begins with the state screening-in and investigating too many false reports, trivial cases and, as Sanders said, “chasing poverty cases about kids with dirty clothes or someone who forgot lunch.” Then they take the children in too many of those cases.  That overburdens the caseworkers.  So a caseworker hiring binge won’t fix it.  It will do just what the McLawsuit is likely to do: leave West Virginia with the same lousy system only bigger. 

But NBC News discovered none of this.  They never got past that master narrative.