On Sunday, the LA Times ran a well-thought out editorial about the kind of self-examination we need to start demanding of LA County’s Department of Family and Children Services—foster care—if its director, Trish Ploehn, is indeed on the way out, as some—including the Times—have suggested.
But before we discuss the new LA Times editorial….
FIRST, A WORD OR TWO ABOUT LAST WEEK’S QUARREL WITH THE TIMES OVER FOSTER CARE COVERAGE
To recap: on Friday afternoon, I wrote nearly 2500 words in Part 2 of a rebuttal to David Louter’s rebuttal of what Daniel Heimpel and I wrote last week in criticism of elements of the Times’ recent coverage of DCFS in particular, and the California foster care system in general. (Part 1 of WLA’s rebuttal to the LA Times rebuttal is here.)
When I reread my newest tortuous, point by point, response to Louter’s response, while I thought it well-researched and reasoned, it bored me to the point of screaming and I believe would have bored you too.
So I didn’t post it.
Here’s the bottom line: I criticized the LA Times, as did Daniel Heimpel—not because the Times reported on the horrific incidences of kids being killed while under the eye of DCFS, along with the department’s ongoing dysfunction, which of course was essential to investigate—but for failing to do so in such a way that would not, erroneously, give the impression to panicky policy makers that the solution was to take lots more kids away from parents and push them into the foster care system. We were concerned that, in an effort to cure one terrible set of wrongs, the Times risked triggering a reactive policy that would do damage to thousands of kids who would be shoved unnecessarily into a callous and often life-ruining system.
Among the specific problems that Heimpel and I focused on was the fact that the Times pulled out of context a single set of numbers—one of many figures in a series of reports issue by Charles Ferguson, the official state evaluator for the 2007-instituted foster care funding strategy known as the Title IV-E Waiver.
The numbers in question were these: In the year following the start of the waiver, among kids who were in a household where there was some kind of substantiated case of abuse or neglect, re-abuse of those same kids rose from 9.6 percent in 2007 to 11.4 percent in 2008, the year following the beginning of the waiver. Taken alone and out of context of past years, those stats suggested that the waiver system was causing a lot more kids to get hurt than in the pre-waiver days.
However, in the five years before the waiver began, the re-abuse rate went as high as 11.9 and bounced consistently in the 10 and 11 percent range, a set of facts that changes the meaning of those 2007-08 numbers radically.
Of course anything but a continuing drop toward zero in re-abuse is deeply dismaying, and tells us that DCFS is not even close to adequately protecting children. But misreading that isolated rise as a sign that the waiver is causing more kids to get hurt, wreaks havoc with any kind of reasoned and fact-based analysis.
(If you want the details go back to the original critique of mine here, Heimpel’s here, the Times article in question here, and Charlie Ferguson’s report here. FYI: I talked at length to Ferguson late last week, who confirmed that, without context, the use of the stats was misleading.)
However, instead of addressing those central issues, Louter ignored our main areas of criticism, like the use of the Ferguson report, and quarreled with minor points. (Which, as I said above, I spent time madly refuting, until I got a grip on myself.)
Louter also attacked Heimpel and me personally, saying we would choose to keep kids in abusive homes, just to serve some whacked out ideological notion that demanded kids be kept out of the system, no matter how great the cost. (So would we let them get killed too, or just let them get abused? I’m curious where Louter imagines I/we would draw the line.)
He also said that, if we had our collective way, “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.”
This is, of course, laughable.
So, instead of having a productive, if contentious, conversation, Louter went straight into defense mode and proceeded to throw random projectiles at us (metaphorically speaking).
(NOTE: While Louter’s additions to the dialogue were irritating at best, I did have a couple of productive private conversations with reporter Garrett Therolf. While we still disagreed on much, the mutual exchange of information and perspectives could not help but be a good thing.)
….WHICH BRINGS ME TO SUNDAY’S LA TIMES EDITORIAL ABOUT DCFS…
….which was refreshingly smart, nuanced, well thought out, and detailed.
Here are a couple of clips:
….Moreover, though child deaths are the most tragic consequence of DCFS ineffectiveness, the county abounds with stories of children left in squalid conditions, inexplicably reunited with dangerous parents rather than remaining in the hands of caring foster parents, or otherwise mistreated. Thousands of children emerge from foster care in this county healthy and bound for productive futures; for too many, however, it remains a perilous system, frightening and mean.
The service that today’s DCFS provides is alarmingly uneven. Some of its 18 field offices are well regarded and fully staffed, and appear to be successfully protecting children. Others have vacancies and long backlogs in processing even emergency cases, as well as a toxic combination of burned-out workers and inexperienced ones. In one recent period studied by the county, the West San Fernando Valley regional office processed all of its emergency referrals on time, while the Compton office missed the 60-day deadline in more than 60% of its cases (and that deadline is twice as lenient as in most parts of California, where foster care agencies are expected to handle emergency referrals within 30 days). One likely cause of Compton’s inexcusable backlog: Nearly a third of the city’s social workers have been on the job for less than two years.
Discipline is similarly spotty, and the county’s recent study concluded that directors of the regional offices spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with problem workers, another symptom of mismanagement. The county needs to set clear expectations for its employees, and it needs to fire those who fail.
The rest is equally substantive, with an eye toward how complex and tragic this foster care mess really is. Moreover, the Times presented their points in such a way that begs for more conversation with an eye toward real solutions.
Thank you, LA Times editorial board. Please keep it coming.