Foster Care Los Angeles Times

Is the LA Times Coverage of DCFS in Danger of Endangering Kids?

The headline above may sound a bit alarmist,
but a growing number of those knowledgeable about LA’s foster care system—and foster care in general—are asking that same question but in far harsher terms.

Richard Wexler, director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, has written a bunch of blog posts angrily criticizing the Times’ coverage of the issue.

In an op ed published in late October Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Mike Antonovich accused the Times’ coverage of fueling panic.

Still more is being said by others behind the scenes.

The most recent person to publicly criticize the Times coverage is award-winning journalist, Daniel Heimpel, who is now the director of the nonprofit, Fostering Media Connections.

Heimpel’s article for the Huffington Post on Tuesday accuses the LA Times and its reporter, Garrett Therolf, of cherry-picking stats and numbers out of context, or outright misreporting facts to fit an incendiary thesis that risks doing damage to the kids it purports to want to protect.

Moreover, Heimpel’s research and reporting-on-the-reporting—including re-interviewing people quoted by the Times— is much too solid and detailed to ignore.

First some back story: The LA Times’ Garrett Therolf covers the troubled Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services—or DCFS—and other county issues. DCFS is an extremely challenging beat and Therolf has had a number of high profile, front page stories in the last year about kids who have been killed by those who should have protected them.

Certainly it is essential for the paper to write about these horrifying deaths, but tragedies without context can lead to a panicky public, which can, in turn, lead to very bad policy.

Instead of context, however, Therolf followed up a dramatic string of stories that suggest that DCFS has deliberately hidden the number of kids who have died on its watch.

As I reported last month :

Therolf laid much of the problem at the feet of a comparatively new program called the Title IV-E Waiver, under which LA County agreed to cap the sum of funds it can receive for foster care services, no matter how many kids it takes into its care. The “waiver” as it is called, was part of a series of reforms put in place in the last decade, this one aimed at fixing the previous system that in essence fiscally incentivized the county to take kids away from their families—because the more kids taken away, the more bucks the county received.

As predicted, the capped funds waiver system has gotten the Department of Family and Children Services to take fewer kids out of their homes. Instead, DCFS has pushed to help the kids and their families toward health and safety without removal—thus allowing the children to remain in place, but still under county supervision.

The Times suggests that more child injury and deaths have resulted.

Unfortunately, according to a number of sources and experts, many of Therolf’s supporting facts range from very fuzzy to downright inaccurate—and seem to be immune to correction—all of which Daniel Heimpel details in his story.

Here’s how it opens:

Los Angeles Times’ reckless coverage of child deaths threatens the very children we trust it intends to protect.

Publishing the details of a child’s death must only serve one purpose – to save the next child. That righteous goal requires a newspaper’s ability to stare the human evil that allows children to die squarely in the face, understand it and describe how to surmount it. Anything less invites dangerous irresponsibility.

Through the summer and into fall, the Los Angeles Times has ratcheted up coverage of the County’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), asserting an increase in the number of children who have died on the Department’s watch. Many of these stories are laced with the names of children and the brutality of their deaths. But for all the words, all the horror, the reader is left without any context to what the numbers mean and without any explanation of how to make the dying stop.

Instead, one finds the upward trend in child deaths built on contested, murky numbers, requests from sources to correct errors disregarded and the theory explaining the suggested jump based in conjecture, its only anchor a data point taken widely out of context. The Times’ myopic, misleading and reckless reporting has sparked a misinformed panic, posing a very real threat to many of Los Angeles’ most vulnerable children. And on a grander scale, if this incomplete coverage is unmatched by sober analysis, it threatens the very reforms that have helped so many foster children up to this point.

Then in the rest of the story, he takes apart large chunks of Therof’s reporting, point by point.

For example, he shows how Therolf built much of his thesis (that when DCFS began removing fewer children from their families, this resulted in more injuries to kids) around a single figure taken egregiously without context from a 120 page report–nevermind that other crucial numbers could be construed to say the opposite.

Elsewhere Heimpel writes that “headlines starting in mid-October cite “confidential documents” showing the numbers of child deaths resulting from abuse and neglect rising from 18 in 2008, to 26 in 2009 and stating that there were already 21 maltreatment deaths within the first eight months of 2010. ” But what the Times neglected to explain was that the state definition of death by abuse and neglect was broadened under a new state law to include suicide, drownings and other unintended deaths.

The Times also ignores the stats reported by the Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect (ICAN) “the one consistent outside auditor of child deaths over the past three decades,” which showed the number deaths of children with DCFS histories actually dropped from 20 in 1998 to 14 in 2008—further suggesting that the 2009-2010 rise was an artifact of the mandated redefinition, not that more kids were dying.

Perhaps that pesky fact would have made for less compelling headlines.

In addition, Heimpel notes other things—like the matter of Therolf reporting that Michael Gennaco, head of the county’s Office of Independent Review , “found [DCFS] inappropriately hid dozens of cases [of child death] from public view. ”

Except that, according to Gennaco, who is generally a straight shooter, he said no such thing, nor did he have findings of such.

Gennaco went so far as to send an email (which I have obtained) to the LA Times to clear up the error, and which the Times and Therolf ignored.

Instead, within a week, Therolf published a new article in which he reported what Gennaco says he did not say.

And there is a lot more.

Listen: I realize that all of these articles-–Daniel Heimpel’s included—can seem like so much inside baseball to those unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the foster care politics.

But much is at stake when the state’s largest newspaper starts using some high profile tragedies to push—without adequate factual basis and no visible thoughtful consideration—for a change in policy that would result in more kids snatched unnecessarily from non-abusive families into the trauma that is foster care.

“In the name of helping children,” said Heimpel when we talked on Tuesday about the Times’ coverage, ” it may very well result in a lot more children to be hurt.”

I asked Heimpel what he hoped would come of his criticism of Therolf and company.

He paused. “Sober thought and analysis,” he said finally. “That’s what I hope this moment brings.”


  • The all out attack on government programs from the right continues. True to form, much of the left will usually join them out of sheer timidness.

  • Kudos to challenging the self-serving and incredibly inaccurate sensationalizing by Therolf and LA Times. However, you give them too much credit in saying they’re pushing for a change in policy, since their criticisms do not constitute a thoughtful, researched call for change. Their push is to sell their paper, and perhaps get Therolf a Pulitzer along the way–which would be another discredit to the Pulitzer if it were to pass. The harm they cause is to the public will, which then erodes rather than enhances the welfare of children.

  • I’m glad you and others are covering this. It’s too bad our policy is so outrage driven. We are probably all guilty of this type of sensationalizing (though hopefully more careful of the facts).

  • Even if you and Heimpel are right, you come up with 14 deaths of children in 2008. Still way too many for me and any sane society to tolerate. I’m not yet convinced The Times’ coverage is anything but stellar. I’m also inclined to applaud the state for broadening its definition of mistreatment to include suicides and drownings.

  • Alan, no one is saying that we should tolerate the deaths of children, for god’s sake. When children are killed—or allowed to be killed—by those who should have protected them, it is the worst kind of tragedy that a society can produce.

    And, yes, the broadening of the definition is appropriate.

    What surely we all want is to keep our county’s kids safe from harm, either from the harm wrought by abusive parents or by a system that, in too many instances, wounds more than it helps.

    It is not an easy matter, not even to talk about clearly, much less to accomplish.

  • Excellent summary of the situation and the players. As a former LA County foster parent (1976-79), I am sympathetic to the frustrations of both the public and the social work professionals in the need to have a compassionate, effective program that helps children to survive (and thrive)in an society that undervalues and underfunds such priorities.

  • If Garrett Therolf is able to shed some light, and increase awareness to the public of what the county DCFS has tried so desprately to hide, then he can have as many Pulitzer prizes as he wants! “Self serving and inaccurate sensationalizing!” Try telling that to the dead two year old, “Vyctorya Sandoval,” who died on Easter Sunday due to the negligence, and incompetence of El Monte DCFS and Edelman’s Children’s Court! She had no voice to begin with and sadly, neither do the 70ish other children’s whose lives were tragically cut short, by the very same system that was designed to protect them!

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