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Times responds to criticism of foster care coverage

Over the past two years, The Times has written some four dozen articles about child abuse and problems in the Los Angeles County agency whose mission is to combat it. The articles have documented computer systems that don’t properly communicate with each other; policy directives that have gone unfulfilled; an inability to share information that could have saved children’s lives; and failure by the agency, the Department of Children and Family Services, to provide the public with information about child deaths that is mandated for disclosure under state law.

The Times has also examined an issue raised by some critics of the department -- whether a push to reduce the number of children taken away from abusive parents and moved into foster care has put children at excessive risk.

Recently, The Times has come under fire in published reports that call the coverage, among other things, “reckless” and “downright inaccurate.”

Assistant Managing Editor David Lauter, who oversees state and local reporting, addresses the concerns and criticism here:

In writing about these topics, The Times has ventured into an arena where emotions run high. Social workers dealing with abused and neglected children labor at one of society’s most difficult jobs, often facing an array of bad choices from which they must try to choose the least bad. On the subject of when -- and how often -- to remove children from their parents and put them in foster care, many people who work within the system have deeply held ideological positions honed over years of debate.

In recent weeks, some officials in the county bureaucracy as well as some writers who have a long-standing position in favor of keeping children out of foster care -- even if that means leaving them with abusive parents -- have taken to criticizing The Times’ stories.

The critics have raised some statistical issues, on which they are simply mistaken. We detail the facts below.

Many of these critics also make an argument about what they call “social worker panic.” According to this line of thinking, a news organization that pays attention to policy or management problems at a child welfare agency generally will make matters worse because social workers, feeling themselves under scrutiny, will invariably overreact, putting more children at risk. Presumably, in the view of these critics, a news organization that finds evidence of mismanagement or poor execution of policies should say nothing for fear of how a panicked bureaucracy might respond.

We’ll let readers decide for themselves whether that line of argument seems reasonable. In the meantime, we’d like to set the record straight on some serious statistical issues that have been carelessly bandied about by some critics of The Times’ stories.

On Oct. 19, Times reporter Garrett Therolf disclosed confidential Los Angeles County figures which showed that since 2008, the number of children dying from abuse or neglect after being under the scrutiny of DCFS has been on the rise.

Some critics, including Daniel Heimpel and Celeste Fremon, have accused The Times of failing to take into account changes in the way deaths from abuse and neglect are defined. The result, they say, is a false claim of increase.

That accusation is simply incorrect. The reason The Times limited its story only to deaths starting in 2008 is precisely that the definition of deaths from abuse and neglect have been consistent only since that time. As a result, the trend reported by The Times is accurate -– a rise in abuse and neglect deaths from 18 in 2008 to 26 in 2009 and 21 in the first eight months of this year.

In previous years, DCFS repeatedly had changed its recordkeeping practices for abuse and neglect deaths, resulting in wide variations in the number of reported deaths. By contrast, the tallies for the past three years were supervised by the county’s Office of Independent Review. This oversight came after OIR officials found significant internal discrepancies in the classification of abuse and neglect deaths, with social workers at times citing abuse and neglect in court cases to remove surviving siblings from a home at the same time the death was not reported as an abuse or neglect case under the state disclosure law.

Heimpel and Fremon also claim The Times has “ignored” statistics reported by the Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect (ICAN).

Far from ignoring the ICAN data, The Times has reviewed the figures produced by ICAN and DCFS in considerable detail. The data for years prior to 2008 are incomplete and inconsistent.  Many deaths considered by authorities to be the result of abuse or neglect were not included in the ICAN statistics, including some resulting from medical negligence, malnourishment and other causes.  In addition, the number of child homicides reported by ICAN differs from DCFS’s own calculations for the same category. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors, citing these discrepancies and the deficiencies in recordkeeping, has directed DCFS to better document and recalculate the numbers. DCFS has not yet made that report.

Another assertion raised by Heimpel and others is that The Times has claimed that the county’s policy regarding when to take children away from parents, often referred to as the Title IV-E waiver, had “caused” an increase in re-abuse. The Times has not made any such claim. The Times has reported, correctly, that some policymakers are raising a question about whether the Title IV-E waiver has contributed to the increase.

Given the structure of the program, that question is an important one to examine. The waiver is a central element of county policy. Under it, the county gets a fixed sum for foster care from the federal government, and if costs exceed that amount, the county must pay the difference. If the county spends less than the federal allotment, the county can use the leftover funds to pay for other programs designed to reduce child abuse and neglect.

Finally, press spokesmen for DCFS and L.A. County have said that The Times “ignored” requests for corrections on several stories. This, too, is incorrect. All requests by county officials alleging inaccuracies in Times stories have been reviewed. In the few instances in which the stories included inaccurate passages, we have published corrections. In other cases, we have determined that the story was correct, and no correction has been warranted.

--Deirdre Edgar

 

 
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Comments (11)

Considering the hatchet job the LAT did on teachers, I'm not in the least surprised at the complaints against the foster care articles.

How sad that in his desperate attempt to defend the indefensible, David Lauter misrepresents what my organization and others who have criticized the Times actually believe.

Mr. Lauter falsely claims that “presumably” we don’t want news organizations to cover “mismanagement or poor execution of policies.” In fact, NCCPR repeatedly has called for more coverage of all child welfare failings. On our website, we have an entire section linking to examples of the finest such journalism: http://nccpr.info/additional-reading/ and once or twice a week we send a child welfare news story we think more people should know about to more than 300 reporters around the country, including several at the Times. Once, we even sent one written by Garrett Therolf. (If you’d like to be added to the list Mr. Lauter, just send me an e-mail.)

And it should be obvious that, if we really wanted to ignore mismanagement or poor execution of policies, we wouldn’t be urging the Board of Supervisors to replace DCFS Director Trish Ploehn.

Rather, our objection is to what the Times distorts and what the Times leaves out entirely – such as almost never telling the stories of children wrongfully removed from their homes and the harm that does to children. Indeed, the Times even has refused to report the actual data on the increase in entries into care, data NCCPR obtained using a California Public Records Act request and which we’ve made available here: http://www.nccpr.org/reports/LA2010.pdf

Particularly instructive is Mr. Lauter’s use of the word “presumably.” When a journalist really wants to know what someone “says” or “wants” the usual approach is to call that person up (or send an e-mail) and ask. This is commonly known as “reporting” and is generally considered a superior approach to “presuming.”

Mr. Lauter also evades the issue when he claims that:

“Another assertion raised by Heimpel and others is that The Times has claimed that the county’s policy regarding when to take children away from parents, often referred to as the Title IV-E waiver, had “caused” an increase in re-abuse. The Times has not made any such claim.”

That’s true. Instead, reporter Garrett Therolf has strongly implied cause-and-effect in at least three stories, while never once mentioning that the same document that includes the statistic on re-abuse specifically says it is impossible to draw any such conclusion. Why is the Times afraid to tell readers that simple fact? Nor does the Times discuss the profound financial incentive for misuse and overuse of foster care that existed before the waiver.

Mr. Lauter himself makes similar use of loaded language when he claims that some people “have a long-standing position in favor of keeping children out of foster care -- even if that means leaving them with abusive parents…” That, of course, conjures up images of sending children to their doom. In fact, what my organization favors is not taking away children from parents whose poverty has been confused with neglect, and not taking away children when they can remain safely in their own homes if the parents get the right kinds of help. And the reason my organization favors this approach is because, for the overwhelming majority of children, it is *safer* than foster care. The overwhelming evidence for this is documented at www.nccpr.org

--Concerning the fatality data, the broadening of the definition of fatalities also has made the determination of whether a fatality is the result of maltreatment or an accident far more subjective. Therefore, even with the same definition, it is harder to know if the increase is real.

The Times also has failed to report that, if the increase is real, one possible cause is the foster-care panic which overloads workers, leaving them less time to find children in real danger.

As for the rest, readers need simply compare Mr. Lauter’s comments to what Daniel Heimpel found when he re-reported the story for The Huffington Post: http://huff.to/aeM6ag to see that Mr. Lauter has ignored many of the most serious problems with Therolf’s stories – such as the people who say the Times has been putting words in their mouths. And there is much more at our Child Welfare Blog, www.nccprblog.org

Richard Wexler
Executive Director
National Coalition for Child Protection Reform
www.nccpr.org

I have spent my entire professional life serving foster children in a variety of capacities in both the private and public sector at both the state and county level. I applaud the Times for reporting on this critical issue. Because of the lack of resources in the news industry there is far too little investigative reporting in general. If a free press cannot speak up on these issues they will invariably be swept under the rug by the bureaucracy. The issue of the safety of our children is too important to be left unexamined. If you are worried about those children who have died while under county supervision think about the undoubtedly larger number who are being harmed but not killed.

If one looks at national trends in the area of children being left in harms way by social service agencies you will see that it is an issue in more jurisdictions than just Los Angeles County. It is happening in Cuyahoga County Ohio, the birthplace of the movement to keep more children in their homes ( ref: Cleveland Plain Dealer)and Columbus Ohio (ref: Columbus Ohio Dispatch), ; the State of Colorado (ref: Denver Post), New York City (ref: New York Times) , State of Nevada (report by National Center for Youth Law). These are just the areas where the issue has come to light. One can surmise that there are likely to be many more where this is happening and children are being left in harms way.

Unfortunately, the history of child welfare is littered with what would be good ideas when implemented in a responsible fashion that have been turned into crusades believing that if some application of the principal is good universal application must be better. There were too many children in foster care for the wrong reasons. There were too many children in group home care for the wrong reasons. And the outcomes for many children leaving the system were poor. That created a lot of guilt in the professionals in the system, so the response has been to foster the belief that no children belong in the system, that all families are able to overcome their deficits and that we will eventually rid the world of the evil of child abuse by early intervention. As long as this is the world view in child welfare children will continue to be harmed.

First, Mr. Howard, thank you for signing your name to your post – too many people refuse to take responsibility for what they post in places like this.

Unfortunately, you make the same mistake as the Times, confusing the horror story with the norm. No large child welfare system anywhere in the country, no matter how many children they take or how few, can stop every such case.

But deaths of children known to the system dominate news coverage because the system can hide everything else behind confidentiality laws. That’s why my organization supports opening all court hearings in these cases and opening almost all records in every case, not just death cases.

So it’s no wonder that, if reporters don’t work to find the other failures – all the children needlessly removed – if they go only for the low-hanging fruit on the child welfare beat, people will get the impression that the errors go only one way.

In fact, child welfare systems are arbitrary, capricious, and cruel – they err in all directions. But the more systems are overloaded with children who don’t need to be taken (not to mention the more they are overloaded with pointless policy directives, as a recent county report points out) the less time they have to investigate any case properly. That’s why the one clear pattern in child abuse fatalities is that they tend to increase in the wake of foster-care panics (Not “social worker panics” by the way, Mr. Lauter – please at least get the quote right.)

Here’s what else we know:

--The rate of substantiated child abuse in this country actually peaked in 1993. (Yes some abuse is undiscovered, but you can’t take away a child if you don’t know about the case, so known abuse is what’s relevant here). Yet nationwide the number of children torn from their parents each year – entries into care – kept right on increasing almost every year until 2006. If family preservation really dominated the system, that never would have happened.

--Two massive studies of more than 15,000 *typical* cases found that children left in their own homes generally fared better in later life even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.

--Multiple independent studies have found abuse in at least one in four, often one in three foster homes, with rates in group homes and institutions that are even worse – so in addition to the emotional trauma, foster care is far from a guarantee even of physical safety.

Contrary to what Mr. Lauter wants you to believe, that doesn’t mean my group thinks no child ever should be taken from her or his parents. Rather it means that foster care is an extremely toxic intervention that should be used sparingly and in small doses. But when you look at the actual data, it’s clear that for decades America has been prescribing mega-doses of foster care.

And even your anecdotes are somewhat selective. There is no mention of Illinois, which takes children at one of the lowest rates in the nation. Yes, you can find horror stories there too. But independent court monitors have found that the state’s effort to reduce foster care has improved child safety. And no mention of Alabama (yes, Alabama) where court monitors reached the same conclusion. Or if you prefer to rely on news accounts, check out this one from The New York Times: http://bit.ly/bSLDmy And no mention of Florida, where the independent evaluation of their child welfare waiver (the same kind of waiver the Times is smearing in L.A.) concluded that child safety has improved. And again, see also The New York Times: http://nyti.ms/cgRzgV

And finally even if everything you say is correct, I hope you would agree that still doesn’t justify a newspaper doing things like putting words in people’s mouths that they never said – and if you read Daniel Heimpel’s article,( http://huff.to/aeM6ag) I think you’ll agree the evidence for that is pretty compelling – and Mr. Lauter’s silence on that issue is pretty eloquent as well.

As Celeste Fremon put it in her excellent response to Mr. Lauter today (http://bit.ly/b7a0ke): “No one suggested that you report less,. I/we are urging you to report better.”

Richard Wexler
Executive Director
National Coalition for Child Protection Reform
http://www.nccpr.org

I don't know what this fuss is about, but I've read the articles and found them very insightful and useful. And, had it not been for LAT coverage of this topic, I would've never heard of NCCPR, nor would I care about it.

In the end, we all agree this data points to severe mismanagement and strongly support the ouster of Trish Ploehn. We are not blaming the reporting, her, or social workers for child abuse problems, nor do we have a better solution--we merely want our tax money to be used more efficiently. It's really not too much to ask for. (But it would be nice if she'd just resign already and save herself the humility!)

Thanks for taking the time and care to explain this so well and throughly.

The LA Times is right in their assertions about what LA County DCFS is/ is not doing. What would be the statistics if children died as a result of negligence on the part of the building owner of the 3075 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA where the Emergency Post is located where children are taken to after hours for allegations of abuse/ neglect by either their parents or caregivers. In 2005, the owner of this building, Jamison Properties owned by Dr. David Young Lee and his LLC were found negligent for having exposed LA County employees to the dangerous legionella bacteria where asbestos is also located and posing a health and safety risk. To this day, LA County still has children and the public going to this same location. Is it because of a possible sweetheart deal with this land ownership company that there are many leasing deals made with LA County that this business entity is able to continue to lease to LA County and LA County still uses this known "sick building" where children may be getting ill. What if a child died from having been exposed to bacteria and asbestosis after going to and from this building, who is the blame for this child's death?

Shame on LA County DCFS for not standing up for kids who are in danger!! What about the unnamed children placed in harm's way at the 3075 Wilshire Blvd. Los Angeles building where legionella bacteria and asbestos was found and where many county employees became ill. The owner of this building leases this sick building to the County and in December 2005, LA County Superior Court found Jamison Properties and its affiliated company negligent for having exposed LA County employees to the bacteria and where many have gotten ill if not died. Why isn't LA County taking steps to protect children who are taken to this building on a daily basis since the police take kids there at night to the emergency command post when they are in custody for neglect or abuse by their parents. LA County is just as guilty as the parents for causing harm to children especially when no one is aware of the danger, except them. If a child mysteriously dies from a disease as a result of the bacteria after being sent home to their parents, who is the blame, especially when the unsuspecting parent is not aware of the danger the child was placed in? The profit of a multi millionaire business company is more important than the safety of children!!!! Shame on DCFS and others for covering up this fiasco!!!

Thank you, William, for wondering what all the fuss is about.

Here's what it's about for me: in April of 1999, my wife and I had our two sons taken from their elementary school one afternoon. They were first placed into a group home and then into foster care. It never should have happened.

I very much appreciate the incisiveness of the criticism -- much deserved -- leveled by Mssrs. Heimpel and Wexler against the Times' reporting in the recent series of articles by Mr. Therolf. Celeste Fremon is correct when she identifies the straw man arguments constructed by David Lauter in his response. I hope that Mr. Lauter will get past them, make his way into a more forthright self-examination of the Times' reportage and continue this very important conversation.

The underlying fuss, beyond the reportage, is about a curious system of financial incentive/disincentive, imposed upon counties by federal policy that reimburses counties ONLY for the costs of out-of-home placement of children, even though other alternatives may be more effective, less costly and most importantly, less damaging and traumatic for children and families.

Presently Los Angeles County, along with Alameda County and the State of Florida, have been granted waivers from compliance with that federal policy, and are able to use federal reimbursement dollars in the best interests of child welfare. That waiver is making a very positive difference in Florida outcomes, and under the right child welfare agency leadership, it can do the same in Los Angeles County.

Though we were lucky in the foster care department (incredibly supportive family friends volunteered and were approved to act as our sons' foster parents, although we were not allowed contact with them absent a monitor for many months), our children, my wife, who has multiple sclerosis and whose condition worsened considerably under the stress of the separation, and I endured much emotional trauma. Our family nightmare, which took place in Orange and not LA County, ended when we were reunited ten and one-half months after that horrible day in April, 2009.

Our lives were forever changed -- and not in a good way -- because of an institutional bias toward removing children from their homes that prevails in most places in this country under the current child welfare funding scheme. Far too many families experience similar treatment. THAT's what the fuss is all about.

Yes, child abuse and neglect are real. And yes, child protective services are a necessary thing. However, they need not be the necessary evil which they far too often are. If we are going to provide those services, let's fund them in ways that eliminate institutional bias, give children what is best for their welfare, help deserving families that need help, and improve outcomes, both social and fiscal. Let's get child protection right.

Steven H. Hirsch
www.reasonableefforts.blogspot.com

Mr. Wexler,
It is clear from your comments that you do care about children and ending abuse. That, however, does not make you an expert on objective journalism. I read the articles with much interest and in no way did I find them to be one-sided or accusatory. They simply explored an issue that is rarely discussed in public until it is in response to a tragedy. My hope would be that you set aside your personal feelings and view the analysis as constructive criticism. I thank you for all the good you do.

I agree with Richard Wexler that the LA Times series has implied a causal connection between the CAP waiver and deaths of children "known to the system". Of course, the design of the CAP evaluation specifically states it
"does not allow for statements of causality". Where the Times has referred to individuals as "resisting suggestions" that there is a connection (which certainly influences the perception that the "suggestions" are probably accurate but those individuals "resist" the truth), the paper could instead have highlighted this statement from the CAP evaluation in order to provide balance.

Some years ago a study was done on death rates of children in California's foster care system as well as among those who had left the system. In general (the analysis breaks the data down) the foster care death rate is higher. Moreover, young people who have been in foster care have a higher suicide rate than their peers. Considerable evidence has accumulated to indicate that in the cases most typical of the child welfare system, family preservation (even without services) leads to better outcomes than family separation. The reason Title IV-E waivers are available is the current funding structure, an uncapped entitlement which incentivizes removal of children over services to families even when family preservation would be in the children's best interests. For example, my own state (North Dakota) has consistently had one of the nation's highest rates of removing children (makes you think twice about the heartland, hm?)--and also happens to rely more heavily on the federal contribution to the system than any other state except Mississippi. By placing kids in foster care and taking the federal entitlement (North Dakota has no Title IV-E waivers) the state can avoid using its sizable surplus to fund basic services (such as housing; 6% of families involved in the child welfare system in 2009 who lacked housing were able to get it as a result of the system's involvement) and add to cash flow from the federal government to the state.

Balance of harm is a critical consideration with regard to public policy, where child welfare is concerned as much as anywhere else. The Time's series was not just about whether Los Angeles has been hiding the truth--it was clearly also about the CAP waiver itself.

It is problematic to refer to the waiver as an "experimental" program, which seems to imply that vulnerable children are being used as guinea pigs in a gamble. Such federal waivers are properly called demonstration programs. They provide a small opportunity for evidence-based approaches to be incorporated into systems in which such opportunities are too few.

I would like to thank the Times for running this series, and Richard Wexler for following it in his blog. I would also like to thank Steve Hirsch, a commenter whose post I came upon today. Mr. Hirsch's story is much like my own--and much like too many others I know.


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