Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Tampa Bay Times exposes a crisis made far worse by the Tampa Bay Times

The Times tells us all about the enormous harm done to children when they are moved from foster home to foster home - without ever mentioning the Times-fueled foster-care panic at the root of the problem.

UPDATE, JANUARY 11: Although the Times story has huge problems, Robert Latham, Associate Director of the University of Miami School of Law Children and Youth Law Clinic has done a brilliant job of visualizing the underlying data - driving home the serious and real problem of multiple placement that the Times has made worse.  Check out Prof. Latham's work here.

“Nowhere to call home,” says the headline on a big story in the Tampa Bay Times at the end of last year. “Thousands of foster children move so much they risk psychological harm.”  The subhead declares that “A Tampa Bay Times investigation finds Florida’s overburdened foster care system repeatedly bounces children from home to home and family to family.”

A Tampa Bay Times investigation?  Really?  All they had to do was turn on a television and watch the stories on WFLA-TV.  The television station broke the story and beat the you-know-what out of the Times on it all through 2018.

The Times catch-up story goes on to describe the terrible toll taken on children by being moved from placement to placement. It does add some data giving a sense of how often it happens in Florida in general and Hillsborough County (metropolitan Tampa) in particular.  Any story reminding people of this institutionalized child abuse has value, even one that adds little to what WFLA already told us.

How the Times made the whole problem worse

But the biggest problem with the story is the problem with all of the Tampa Bay Times reporting on child welfare over the past few years.  In a state that’s been in the midst of a media-fueled foster-care panic since 2014, and where, by some measures, the panic is worst in the Tampa-St Petersburg area. The Tampa Bay Times has spent years committing journalistic malpractice, helping to fuel the panic by denying the very existence of the problem that drives everything else: needless removal of children.

Who says children are being taken needlessly in the Tampa Bay area?

● A “peer review team” made up of other key players in the child welfare system and named by the then secretary of the state Department of Children and Families (WFLA reported this; the Tampa Bay Times ignored that part of the team’s report.)

● A representative of the Florida Attorney General who admitted that children are taken just because their families are poor. (The Tampa Bay Times never reported this – WFLA did.)

The most recent story did not ignore the issue entirely – not quite. In the 2,400 word story by reporters Chris O’Donnell and Nathaniel Lash, the problem gets exactly one sentence. Here’s the sentence:

Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida’s Children First, a statewide advocacy organization focused on children’s rights, said the state is struggling because too many children are unnecessarily removed from their homes.

Normally in news stories, that kind of sentence is a way of introducing a topic.  Succeeding sentences elaborate on it, explaining what is meant by unnecessarily removed, why it happens and what can be done about it.  But that’s not how they do things at the Tampa Bay Times.

So after another sentence reporting on the sharp increase in foster care numbers, with no discussion of causes, the story drops anything that would even hint that needless removal is the reason for that increase  Instead there’s this:

Without enough foster beds, placement becomes a scramble to find any home willing to take a child instead of matching a child with a foster parent trained to deal with children with severe behavioral issues. That can start a cycle where children who act out are repeatedly moved because foster parents are unable to cope, Rosenberg said.

The story continues in that vein, describing the problem exclusively as one of too few foster parents, instead of too many foster children.

The editorial was even worse

The inevitable editorial that followed was, inevitably, worse. The Times editorial page has taken the position that there is no problem of children being needlessly removed; in fact, they’ve demanded that government be even more aggressive in tearing apart families. No dissenting view is allowed.  So while the editorial summarizes almost every other aspect of the Times news story, there is not even a token mention of needless removal of children.

Instead, the editorial repeatedly tells us that multiple placement causes further trauma or further damage - in other words, the editorial is telling us, damage over and above what those vicious, rotten, evil, no-good abusive parents did to them – so don’t even think that the answer might be not taking away so many children in the first place!  The Tampa Bay Times is not about to allow any serious discussion of the possibility that some children don’t suffer “trauma” or “damage” until they are removed from their homes.

And the editorial tells us “a high-volume county like Hillsborough needs additional funding to meet this disproportionate need.”  But the “high volume” is not because Hillsborogh County is some kind of cesspool of depravity with vastly more child abuse than anywhere else in Florida. Even poverty, so often confused with neglect, doesn’t explain it.  Other large counties with higher rates of child poverty don’t take children at the same high rate as Hillsborough.  No, the “high volume” is a result of the statewide foster-care panic, and how the Tampa Bay Times has made it worse in its part of the state.

Since they refuse to face up to the real cause of the problem, the Times offers solutions that are as unimaginative as they are ungrammatical, calling for things such as “A public-private effort to enlist more families and provide stabler [sic] long-term housing …” for older foster children.

The Tampa Bay Times has an unusual ownership structure. It’s owned by the Poynter Institute which sees itself a standard-setter for journalism.  Too bad the paper it owns debases the standards of journalism whenever it publishes a story about child welfare.