Monday, November 16, 2015

Congratulations, Miami Herald, you got your foster-care panic

Too bad you did nothing to make children safer.

The Innocents Lost series has been a huge success – if you happen to be a reporter or editor for the Miami Herald.  The series picked up lots of awards, in part because awards judges generally don't do fact checking.  (The series did not win two of the most prestigious journalism awards – no Pulitzer Prize and no award from Investigative Reporters and Editors.  In both those cases, we sent the judges our rebuttal.)

But it didn’t work out so well if you happen to be a child called to the attention of the Florida Department of Children and Families.

As anyone familiar with child welfare could have predicted, there was a foster-care panic.  And every available measure suggests that children are no safer than they were before.

That's not the result the lead reporter on the series, Carol Marbin Miller, or her colleagues wanted.  Nor were they out to "sell newspapers" - or generate pageviews - or even to win awards.  I believe they genuinely thought their work would help children.  But so did Kathleen Kearney, when then-Gov. Jeb Bush named her to run the Florida Department of Children and Families in 1999.  Kearney promptly set off an even worse foster-care panic.  The results of those good intentions gone awry were tragic then, and they are tragic now.
Innocents Lost did about as much good for  the children of  Florida
 as the Iraq War did for the Iraqis.  So every time the series
won an award, I thought of this moment.

In the first year after Innocents Lost was published, the number of children torn from their families in Florida shot up by 12.5 percent.  If current trends continue, by the time the second anniversary of the series rolls around in March 2016, the increase will be 17 percent.  (Full details and links to data sources are at the end of this post.)

The number of children trapped in Florida foster care on any given day (the “snapshot number”) is up 20 percent.

Put another way: in the first year after the series ran, Florida took away 1,763 more children than in the year before the series appeared.  By March 2016, if current trends hold, Florida will have taken another 2,314 more children than likely would have been taken if not for Innocents Lost.  That’s 4,077 children in all

● 4,077 more children, many of them torn from homes where the only real crime was poverty.
● 4,077 more children, many of them torn from everyone loving and familiar.
● 4,077 more children, many of them on their way to being bounced from foster home to foster home, only to emerge years later unable to love or trust anyone.
● 4,077 more children, many taken from safe homes only to be placed at enormous risk in foster care.  Several studies have found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes.
● 4,077 more children who, if they are typical cases of maltreatment, are likely to fare far worse even than comparably-maltreated children left in their own homes as documented in two landmark studies.

And this actually understates the impact.  Because reporting by the Herald in 2011 also set off a foster-care panic.  That year entries shot up by ten percent – they had only just returned to their pre-panic level when Innocents Lost was published.  (Indeed, it was that earlier reporting which prompted NCCPR to create this website devoted to setting the record straight.)

This does not mean that none of those 4,077 children should have been taken from her or his home.  But the paradox of a foster-care panic is that it undermines good decision-making in all cases.  With workers so overwhelmed with so many more cases, they almost certainly made more errors in all directions - taking away more children needlessly and overlooking more children in real danger.  

Consider what the available data show so far:


The Herald reporters probably would argue that all that suffering on the part of children needlessly removed from their homes is worth it because, after all, with all those children swept into foster care, child safety must be improving. 

But it isn’t.

The standard indicators for child safety are reabuse of children after a prior case of abuse, and foster care recidivism – the percentage of children returned to foster care within a year of discharge.  The good news: These indicators have not gotten any worse since Innocents Lost was published.  The bad news: They haven’t gotten any better.

In contrast, when Bub Butterworth and George Sheldon led DCF down a path of real reform and entries into care declined, a series of independent evaluations found that child safety improved.

Both of the measures noted above are vastly better measures of safety than fatalities, and that’s for a reason for which we all should be grateful.  Though each is the worst imaginable tragedy, in a state with more than four million children, the number can rise or fall due to random chance.

But since this is the measure of choice for the Herald, let’s take a look.

Oh, wait.  That’s going to be difficult - because Florida DCF has so vastly altered the way fatalities are measured and results are released that a comparison is almost impossible.

Florida now has come up with three different definitions of “known to the system” – and applied them to all child abuse deaths.  That includes some categories that clearly are due to maltreatment, such as “inflicted trauma,” some that clearly are not, such as “natural causes” and some, notably drowning, that could be either.

So we’re stuck with seeing how many deaths of all kinds involve children in some way “known to the system.”  And even then the picture is mixed, with such deaths declining in one category, down a little in another, and actually increasing in a third.

In short, Innocents Lost did about as much good for the children of Florida as the war in Iraq did for the Iraqis.  That's why every time the series won an award, I thought of George W. Bush in front of his “Mission Accomplished” banner.


Innocents Lost was published in mid-March 2014.  To come up with the most accurate comparison of  “before” and “after” I have left that month out of the comparison.  The data below compare the 12 months from March 1 2013 through Feb. 28, 2014 with the 12 months from April 1, 2014 through March 31, 2015.  The 2016 data are based on a projection using data from April 1, 2015 through Sept. 30, 2015.

Number of children taken from their parents:

Year ending February 2014:                          13,908
Year ending March 2015:                              15,671
Year ending March 2016 (projected)               16,222

INCREASE: 17 percent

Number of children in foster care on any given day (“snapshot number”):

February 2014:                                         18,533
February 2015:                                         20,762
September 2015:                                      22,358

INCREASE: 20.5 percent

All data are from the superb database maintained by Florida’s Center for Child Welfare.  For entry data click on the “Child Welfare Services Trend Report,” for foster-care recidivism data click on the “Federal Measures” report and for re-abuse data click on the “Non-recurrance of Maltreatment” report.