The trouble with “Kearney lite”


This page originally was published in February 2011, it was updated November 12, 2015

I’ve known Carol Marbin Miller longer than I’ve known any other reporter in America still covering child welfare.  The first time I contacted her was in 1997.  I was working part-time for NCCPR – we didn’t have the budget for a full-time executive director – and she was at the St. Petersburg Times.

In the years before she started trashing the state’s reforms (in other words, before those reforms existed) we spoke often enough for me to get a pretty good idea of what she probably would say were she inclined to reply to anything on this site.

She’d argue that she really doesn’t want to go back to the era of disgraced former DCF Secretary Kathleen Kearney – well, not all the way back.  She would say she really, truly would like to see children kept safely in their own homes, if…

IF DCF were monitoring that family constantly, to the point or near 24/7 surveillance.

IF a judge approved every single plan for every single family and watched over those families like a hawk.

IF intensive help were available for every single case no matter how minor it might seem on the surface because, after all, you never know…

And if that sounds familiar, it’s because Miller’s Godsource, Andrea Moore, the former executive director of Florida’s Children First, believes pretty much the same thing.  (Miller’s relationship with Moore also ensures that she won’t report on how a law Moore strongly supported may have contributed to the Barahone tragedy in 2011.)  So does Miller’s other favorite source, Cheleene Schembera, once described by another Herald writer as “the ultimate DCF product”[1] when that was no compliment.   And so do Miller’s favorite grandstanding judges, Cindy Lederman and Jeri Beth Cohen.

All of them share a philosophy best called “Kearney lite.”  The problem with such an approach, the problem with using family preservation only if this and if that and if everything else one can think of, is that it flunks the most important test in child welfare - the balance of harms test.

In child welfare one often is looking at bad options.  That’s why three of the leading scholars of child welfare of the 20th Century wisely suggested that the very term “best interests of the child” be replaced with the term “least detrimental alternative.”[2]  Every time a DCF worker makes a decision she must balance the guaranteed harm of intervening in that family’s life with the potential harm of not intervening.  Because the harm of intervening is guaranteed, it is intervention, and particularly removing children to foster care that should be done only when lots of conditions are met.

In contrast, Kearney lite wrongly assumes that while foster care is certainly not ideal, at least if you place the child in foster care the child is “safe.”  Leaving the child at home supposedly is always “risky” – unless all those if’s are taken care of.  Kearney lite puts the burden of proof in the wrong place.

Kearney lite is simply another variation on the most dangerous phrase for children in the entire child welfare lexicon: “err on the side of the child” – as in the claim that “sure adults suffer when children are needlessly taken, but we have to ‘err on the side of the child.’”

· But 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 can be an experience akin to a kidnapping.  Other children feel they must have done something terribly wrong and now they are being punished.  A major study of foster care “alumni” found they had twice the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder of Gulf War veterans and only 20 percent could be said to be “doing well.”  How can throwing children into a system which churns out walking wounded four times out of five be “erring on the side of the child?”

Two more studies, of more than 15,000 typical cases, are even more devastating.  Those studies found that even maltreated children left in their own homes with little or no help fared better, on average, than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care. That means Miller and the other proponents of Kearney lite are flat wrong.  Sometimes it’s better to leave children in their own homes even if intensive help isn’t available. 

· All that harm can occur even when the foster home is a good one. The majority are.  But the rate of abuse in foster care is far higher than generally realized and far higher than in the general population – the Barahona case itself is simply an extreme example. That same alumni study found that one-third of foster children said they’d been abused by a foster parent or another adult in a foster home.  (The study didn’t even ask about one of the most common forms of abuse in foster care, foster children abusing each other). Several other studies produced similar results.  Switching to orphanages won’t help -- the record of institutions is even worse. 

Furthermore, the more a foster care system is overwhelmed with children who don’t need to be there, the less safe it becomes, as agencies are tempted to overcrowd foster homes and lower standards for foster parents.  If a child is taken from a perfectly safe home only to be beaten, raped or killed in foster care, how is that “erring on the side of the child”? 

· But even that isn’t the worst of it.  The worst was illustrated during the Kearney years, when the system was so overloaded with false allegations, trivial cases and children needlessly taken that workers had less time to find children in real danger.  And that’s almost certainly why, during an era when a true apples-to-apples comparison was possible, even as the number of children torn from their homes soared, deaths of children “known to the system” increased.

In contrast, since Florida reversed course, independent evaluations have found that child safety has improved.

None of these harms is taken into account in the Kearney lite approach clearly favored by Miller and the sources she showcases, often to the near exclusion of any other perspective.

None of this means no child ever should be taken from her or his parents.  Rather, it means that foster care is an extremely toxic intervention that must be used sparingly and in small doses.  Under Kearney, Florida prescribed mega doses of foster care.  Kearney lite is still way too high a dose.


Americans may identify as liberal or conservative, but we like best thinking of ourselves as moderates. The very word moderate is flattering. Moderation implies thoughtfulness, it suggests looking at each situation individually and rendering a custom-tailored judgment. And it suggests that anyone who disagrees with you is an extremist who believes in "quick fixes" and "one size fits all."

That's why every good politician has one rule: Whatever ground you're standing on, claim it as the middle ground.

That works especially well on journalists, who tend to be, as one excellent reporter I know put it long ago, "knee-jerk moderates." That's why news stories always seem to be filled with "swinging pendulums" and assurances that "the truth, of course, lies somewhere in between."

But jerking one's knee toward moderation is as wrong-headed as jerking it in any other direction. And sometimes it's worse. Often, as Jim Hightower says: "there's nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos."

So Miller’s story on Feb. 27 2011, implied that maybe, just maybe, Kearney went a teeny bit too far toward taking away children, (even as it falsely referred to Kearney’s foster care panic as emphasizing keeping children safe) but now, Miller suggests, the ever-present pendulum supposedly has swung too far the other way, and it’s time to get to the middle, which would be juuuuuust right.  

There are two problems with that.

First, Florida never even reached the middle, let alone swinging toward the family preservation end of the continuum.  In 2009, when entries into foster care reached their lowest in Florida since Kearney first started her panic, the rate of child removal in Florida still was above the national average.  So in Florida, since 1999, the pendulum has swung only between taking away vastly too many children and simply taking away too many children.  And now, of course, thanks to Innocents Lost, entries are going way up again.

In addition, given the inherent harm of foster care, the goal should not be an average – rather the goal should be to match the states that have reached the lowest level of removal while still proving they’ve done it without compromising safety.  Two states that have such proof are Illinois and Alabama – yes, Alabama. (A member of NCCPR’s Board of Directors brought the lawsuit that led to that state’s reforms.) In both states, independent court monitors have found that, as their rates of removal were reduced to well below the rate in Florida, child safety improved.  For details see our Issue Paper on family preservation and safety.  

When it comes to child welfare, the truth doesn’t fall somewhere in between.  The truth is in Illinois and Alabama.

But, of course, when Carol Marbin Miller finally got around to reporting on Alabama, in Innocents Lost, she left out all of the information on how the Alabama reforms emphasize doing more, not less, to keep families together.  (See Page 18 of our full rebuttal to Innocents Lost.)


But year after year Carol Marbin Miller refused to tell readers about what was going on in those states - and then provided only distorted information about Alabama.  Repeatedly, I asked her to at least make some phone calls and tell readers about their reforms.  She ducked those requests with a skill any politician would envy.

Indeed, if Miller ever has written a comprehensive story about any success in child welfare, in Florida or elsewhere, (aside from some mention in the course of one profile of George Sheldon, as I recall, and her distorted account of Alabama) I missed it.  

I think that has less to do with an ideological bias than it does with what almost every journalist fears most: looking naïve.   That’s the real reason political reporters prefer stories about strategy and polls to explaining where candidates stand on issues.  Since everybody “knows” all politicians always break their promises, it’s naïve to tell people what candidates actually propose to do if elected.

Similarly, I think the prospect of being embarrassed if she reported favorably on another community’s child welfare system or an innovative program and then it turned out to be not as good as believed was enough to scare Carol Marbin Miller away from providing readers with the journalism they’ve needed for more than a decade to make good decisions.  For much the same reason, reporters stay away from the other kind of horror story – the story of children needlessly torn from everyone they know and love.  On our main Child Welfare Blog, I write about a journalist who refuses to be cowed by that fear.

That very fear actually played into the hands of DCF when the agency was at its worst, something I hope to get to in a future post to this site.

On the other hand, Miller's complete distortion of what really happened in Alabama probably was driven by ideology.


But the biggest failing in Carol Marbin Miller’s recent reporting on child welfare, including Innocents Lost, isn’t her belief in Kearney lite, it is her insistence on imposing her belief on readers and denying them the chance to make up their own minds.

Somewhere in that time from 1997 to now, Carol Marbin Miller decided she knew so much about child welfare in general and the Florida system in particular that she had the right to cross what should be a bright line between reporter and advocate.  When I crossed that line myself, with the publication of my book, Wounded Innocents, in 1990, while I still was a reporter, I recused myself from covering stories about child welfare.

But Carol Marbin Miller has decided she can determine which points of view are valid and which are not, and systematically exclude facts that contradict the Kearney lite perspective.
It’s one thing for an editorial writer or a columnist to do that, quite another for someone who has chosen to remain in the most important job in journalism: reporter.  As I discussed in more detail in response to some of Miller’s earlier stories, now she is dishonoring that job.

[1] David Green, “DCF interim director has had long road to Miami,” Miami Herald, Dec. 03, 2002.
[2] Joseph Goldstein, Anna Freud, Albert J. Solnit, Beyond the Best Interests of the Child, (New York: The Free Press, 1973), p.53.