Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The price of panic: It all starts at the hotline

Before Carol Marbin Miller and her colleagues at the Miami Herald set off a massive foster-care panic in Florida by distorting almost every issue in child welfare in its series Innocents Lost, before the Herald used the same tactics in its distorted coverage of the tragic death of Nubia Barahona, the Herald went after the Florida child abuse hotline.

The tactics were the same – broadbrush conclusions from horror stories and highly selective use of documents and data – as NCCPR documented here and here.

And now, once again, we see how the Herald’s distortions hurt children. 

The information does not come from the Herald, of course.  Rather it comes from the Palm Beach Post in partnership with WPTV television.  Their story deals with why caseworkers for the Florida Department of Children and Families are quitting in droves, and why those who stay are cutting corners – and worse.

As the story puts it:

…an inundation of paperwork, an ever-expanding job description and a ballooning number of cases have led to what some are calling a “mass exodus” of investigators statewide. “Out all night, up all day, you aren’t getting any sleep. How can you make a sound decision about a child’s safety?” a current investigator said.

As a result, some investigators told the Post, “the only way to do the job is to falsify records.”

But most revealing is what the workers themselves say is causing this inundation:

Employees interviewed pointed to the Abuse Hotline’s reluctance to throw out a complaint for the constant stream of new cases. … A former employee argued that investigators are assigned cases that have “absolutely 100 percent nothing to do at all with child safety.” Some blame a “knee-jerk reaction” and a fear of having a child fall through the cracks for leading to the inundation of cases. …
 Even when investigators question whether a case involves a child’s welfare, they are required to investigate — and fill out paperwork — as they would any other case. “When you get two or three cases a day, you literally cannot do what you need to do to make sure that you’re doing a good job. You can’t do it,” a former investigator said.

So some workers falsify documents, others quit, and none of them has the time to investigate any case carefully – making it both more likely that children will be taken needlessly and more likely that other children in real danger will be missed.

Mike Carroll: "It is what it is."
But what is truly bizarre is the response to all this from Mike Carroll, whose job title is Secretary of Post:
the Department of Children and Families. He told the

“We can’t shut off the hotline. It is what it is.  And as people call, we are mandated to get out there.”

Except that’s not true.  As in other states, the Florida hotline is supposed to screen out calls that are obviously false, or don’t meet the law’s definition of child abuse, or for which the caller lacks reasonable cause to suspect abuse.

In some cases, yes, they are “mandated to get out there,” in others not.

There is good reason for this. Needless child abuse investigations traumatize children – and divert time from finding children in real danger.

The real problem is exactly what the frontline caseworkers say it is: A knee jerk reaction and fear of being on the front page of the Herald if they screen out a call and a tragedy occurs.

But there will always be screening in child welfare. Either it will be rational screening at the hotline, or irrational screening by caseworkers cutting corners because they can’t keep up.

As for Mike Carroll, no doubt the vulnerable children of Florida sleep better at night knowing that they have a dynamic forceful leader always ready to confront a problem by declaring “It is what it is.”

But then Carroll doesn’t really run DCF.  For all intents and purposes Carol Marbin Miller does. The agency cowers in fear of her next story, and jerks its knees accordingly. 

Perhaps it’s time to consider how well that’s working out. Miler got what she wanted. The decline in entries into care – a decline that independent evaluators said improved child safety – is long gone. More and more children are torn from everyone they know and love.

Two weeks ago, The New York Times reported on how, in New York City, foster care has become the new “Jane Crow.” It told story after story about children needlessly taken from their homes because their parents are poor.  It is, of course, the kind of story Carol Marbin Miller would never write, even though the rate of child removal in Florida is more than two-and-a-half times as high as the rate in New York City. So all the horrors inflicted on New York City children by their equivalent of DCF are happening at least two-and-a-half times as often in Florida.

Raise your hand if you think that’s made Florida children safer.  Raise your hand if you think child welfare in Florida is better now than it was before Miller started on her crusade against keeping families together.

Tomorrow: The kind of caseworker DCF chooses to fire - and the kind it chooses to keep