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Times responds to criticism of foster care coverage

November 18, 2010 |  5:08 pm

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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