Monday, August 1, 2016

The column the Tampa Bay Times doesn’t want you to see

One of the dangers from all the cutbacks and consolidations sweeping through the newspaper industry is that it becomes that much easier to monopolize the marketplace of ideas.

So in Florida, there is far less room now to get a word of dissent in edgewise than there was just a decade ago.

The only papers in Florida still big enough to cover child welfare on a regular basis are the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times.

In 2008, the papers combined their statehouse bureaus – and state government is, of course, the source of much child welfare news. 

Then the Times republished Innocents Lost.  And ever since, the Times editorial page has marched in lockstep with the failed thesis behind that series, declaring in a January 2016 editorial “when it doubt, take the child.”

When I tried to get in a few hundred words of dissent at that time, it was disappointing that I got no response from Herald editorial page editor Tim Nickens or perspective editor Jim Verhulst.

Then in May, the Times bought out and shut down another possible venue for dissent -  the Tampa Tribune. That newspaper tended to be more amenable to sharing a wide variety of viewpoints on child welfare with readers. 

Last month, after the Times reported that, in Hillsborough County, so many children are being torn from their homes that they sometimes have to sleep in offices, I updated the column and tried again. Still no response. If the Times has published dissent from some other source that says too many children are removed needlessly, criticizes Innocents Lost, and calls for less use of foster care, I haven’t seen it.

I was reminded of the Times’ no dissent approach when I saw this story about a tragic child death in Tampa – the kind of death the Florida foster care panic was supposed to prevent, or at least reduce. In fact, in 2015, such deaths increased.

The Times is, of course, entirely within its rights to advocate for a position and ignore dissenting voices. As A.J. Liebling famously said “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one” – and NCCPR doesn’t own one.

But we do have this blog.  So here’s the column.  You can decide for yourself if it was so utterly beyond the pale that the Times was right to be sure its readers never were exposed to it:

“When in doubt, take the child” is formula for more tragedy

            It’s been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
            Nowhere is that more apparent than in Florida child welfare.
            In 1998, the headlines were about a little girl named Kayla McKean.  Just two months after Kayla’s death, Kathleen Kearney was named to run the Florida Department of Children and Families.  Her mantra: When in doubt, take the child.  The number of children torn from their families skyrocketed – increasing by 50 percent in a single year.  With no place to put all those children, some slept in offices.  And because the system was so overloaded, deaths of children “known-to-the-system” increased.
            In 2014 came Innocents Lost, the series of stories in the Miami Herald and the Times about children who died after their cases were known-to-the-system.  The Legislature said, in effect, when in doubt, take the child.  Once again the number of children taken from their parents is soaring.  And once again, deaths of children known-to-the-system have increased.
            Yet in January, in the wake of its reporting on another tragedy, the death of Phoebe Jonchuck, the Times told us the answer is “When in doubt, take the child” [Editorial, Jan. 15].
            Authorities listened.  Hillsborough County is taking children at a rate even higher than the state average.  And once again, children have slept in offices.
            It’s not some bizarre coincidence that this approach never works.  It’s a misreading of the problem.
            We look at a case where a child died, and it turns out the file had more “red flags” than a Soviet May Day parade.  So we think, Aha! There must be a “bias toward family preservation.”  But there is no such bias, and there never has been.  Florida consistently has taken away children at a rate at or above the national average, far above the rate in systems that have been nationally-recognized as models for keeping children safe – systems like Alabama, the very state Innocents Lost said Florida should emulate.
            The real reason for tragedies such as the death of Phoebe Jonchuk almost always is more frustrating, more mundane and harder to fix.  Children die when undertrained, underprepared caseworkers are overloaded with too many cases. They can’t investigate any case properly.  So even as they take more children needlessly, they also miss more children in real danger.  Despite being one of the primary proponents of the take-the-child-and-run approach, even Maj. Connie Shingledecker, who is in charge of child abuse investigations in Manatee County blamed this overload for a death on her watch.
            In contrast, the only time independent evaluators ever concluded that Florida children actually were getting safer was when Bob Butterworth and then Geroge Sheldon ran DCF.  They moved to curb needless removal of children – not because of some “bias” but because it’s the only answer that works.
            “When in doubt, take the child” is one of those fear-fueled, feel-good responses to tragedy – like “Carpet bomb our enemies” or “Ban all Muslims.”  But all of those strategies do enormous collateral damage to innocents.
In the case of child welfare:
● When a child is needlessly thrown into foster care, he loses not only mom and dad but often brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, teachers, friends and classmates.  For a young enough child it’s an experience akin to a kidnapping.  Other children feel they must have done something terribly wrong and now they are being punished.  The emotional trauma can last a lifetime. 
So it’s no wonder that two massive studies involving more than 15,000 typical cases – not the horror stories – found that children left in their own homes fared better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.
● That harm occurs even when the foster home is a good one.  The majority are.  But multiple studies have found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes.  So when we say “when in doubt, take the child” we’re really saying “take the child and roll the dice.”
And then there’s that other collateral damage: a system so overwhelmed that workers overlook children like Phoebe Jonchuck.
            None of this means no child ever should be taken from her or his parents.  But foster care is an extremely toxic intervention that should be used sparingly and in small doses. 
Every time Florida tries upping the dose, it backfires.

            Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.  NCCPR’s full response to Innocents Lost is available here: