Responsibility Lost

' reckless coverage of child deaths threatens the very children we trust it intends to protect.
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Los Angeles Times' reckless coverage of child deaths threatens the very children we trust it intends to protect.

Publishing the details of a child's death must only serve one purpose - to save the next child. That righteous goal requires a newspaper's ability to stare the human evil that allows children to die squarely in the face, understand it and describe how to surmount it. Anything less invites dangerous irresponsibility.

Through the summer and into fall, the Los Angeles Times has ratcheted up coverage of the County's Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), asserting an increase in the number of children who have died on the Department's watch. Many of these stories are laced with the names of children and the brutality of their deaths. But for all the words, all the horror, the reader is left without any context to what the numbers mean and without any explanation of how to make the dying stop.

Instead, one finds the upward trend in child deaths built on contested, murky numbers, requests from sources to correct errors disregarded and the theory explaining the suggested jump based in conjecture, its only anchor a data point taken widely out of context. The Times' myopic, misleading and reckless reporting has sparked a misinformed panic, posing a very real threat to many of Los Angeles' most vulnerable children. And on a grander scale, if this incomplete coverage is unmatched by sober analysis, it threatens the very reforms that have helped so many foster children up to this point.

"Atrocities to children are the most fundamentally horrific events that people face," Harry Spence, Co-Director of Harvard's Education Leadership Program, and the former head of Massachusetts Child Welfare Agency, says in reference to the hysteria that ensues after high profile coverage of child deaths. "It is admirable that human beings are horrified. The difficulty is that the response becomes deeply irrational."

The first line in converting this understandable rage into positive action -- as opposed to irrational and destructive panic -- is the news organization that makes the hard decision to run stories knitted with the horrors of a child's death. In the case of the Times' reporting, this should have started with a complete and open depiction of what new child death numbers actually mean.

Headlines starting in mid-October cite "confidential documents" showing the numbers of child deaths resulting from abuse and neglect rising from 18 in 2008, to 26 in 2009 and stating that there were already 21 maltreatment deaths within the first eight months of 2010. What the Times neglected to make clear, while the Los Angeles Daily News did, was that the state definition of death by abuse and neglect was broadened under state law SB39 in 2008 from child homicide alone to include suicide, drownings and deaths in which a parent rolls on a child in sleep.

The one consistent outside auditor of child deaths over the past three decades has been the Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect (ICAN). Despite having written about ICAN's latest report in April of this year, the Times' latest spate of stories never made note of these statistics, which have shown the number of children with DCFS histories having died at the hands of parents, foster parents or relative guardians dropping from 20 in 1998 to 14 in 2008.

This questionable silence was broken when the Times reported that Los Angeles County Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Michael D. Antonovich had issued a motion questioning the Times' tally of deaths. In the motion the Supervisors neglected to note a typographical error when citing ICAN numbers showing that total child deaths from abuse and neglect had dropped from 72 in 1989 to 43 in 2009, according to Deanne Tilton Durfee, Executive Director of ICAN.

The Times' pounced immediately. In an Oct. 19 blog, reporter Garrett Therolf wrote, "Tilton-Durfee, executive director of the interagency council said the supervisors had misrepresented her organization's figures."

On October 21st Tilton Durfee sent a correction request to the Times' Reader Representative stating that she had not said the Board had misrepresented her organization's figures when Therolf had called about the numbers on the 19th. Shortly after that initial conversation with Therolf, Tilton Durfee reviewed the tally and found that a typographical error was to blame. At which point she called Therolf to clear up the confusion, according to her correction request.

"I phoned Mr. Therolf and told him this in the mid afternoon, which I presume was before his deadline," Tilton Durfee wrote.

Despite this forewarning, the blog went out at 5:41 PM. No clarification or correction was ever given.

In a similar instance, the Times refused to run a correction stemming from an October 10th article in which Supervisor Ridley-Thomas asked for better long term data on deaths in the wake of an audit of DCFS compliance with state law SB39, which calls for broader definitions of child death by abuse and neglect and increased facility in making those cases open to the public.

"The county's Office of Independent Review recently found that the department hid dozens of cases from the public," the story read.

The report itself was devoid of any indication that the Department had "hid" anything. Rather Mike Gennaco, Chief Attorney at the Office of Independent Review wrote in the report, "that during OIR's review, it received no information to believe that this alleged inconsistent approach in assessing child fatalities between different components of DCFS was either intentional or designed."

On October 12th, DCFS Communications Director Nishith Bhatt sent the Times' Therolf an email asking where in the report Gennaco had used the word "hid." Three minutes later Therolf replied, writing: "In his oral remarks, Gennaco said dozens of cases were inappropriately hidden from the public."

Nowhere in the transcripts from the August 31 Supervisorial hearing in which Gennaco shared his report did he indicate that the Department had hid child deaths. Even when pressed by Supervisor Zev Yaroslovsky that "there are some reasons to believe that this is not just an accidental disconnect, that the left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing," Gennaco clarified that he had "no evidence" of any intent to suppress information.

When asked again by Bhatt to produce documentation, Therolf retreated from his email response claiming that Gennaco had said, "dozens of cases were inappropriately hidden from the pubic," in his "oral statements." Instead. Therolf wrote that Gennaco's purported statement that the Department had "hid" cases was "unpublished reporting."

"Your original message was treated as a formal request for correction," Therolf writes to Bhatt, "and I informed you that my editor and I see no need for correction. As you know, unpublished reporting is protected, and I am unable to share it with you. The story speaks for itself."

On October 14th, Gennaco sent an email to Times editors David Lauter, Megan Garvey and the Reader's Representative to the Times disputing the assertion that he had said the Department "hid dozens of cases from the public."

Despite this email, on Oct 19th the Times published another article stating that Gennaco, "found the department inappropriately hid dozens of cases from public view." But strangely added: "whether the failure to make the files public was intentional or not remains under review." By definition, to hide is to put something out of sight. This renders these two statements contradictory.

Despite the contradictions within the story itself, and requests to set the record straight, no clarification or correction was ever given. (Update: the Times issued a response on November 18.)

Having fueled the reading public's rage through the explicit vision of child death, the assertion that such deaths were on the rise and that there existed an administration intentionally trying to hide this from the public, the Times, one of the nation's largest and most well-respected newspapers, began funneling that understandable rage into a wholly unsubstantiated theory. Understanding this environment of selective reporting, is it unsurprising that the researcher -- to whom the one fact used to substantiate what is otherwise nothing more than loosely plausible conjecture -- asserts that this fact was taken widely out of context?

Public Child Welfare has undergone a dramatic shift over the past decade. In 1998, 560,000 children lived in out-of-home foster care; by the end of 2009 the numbers had dropped to 424,000, according to the Administration of Children and Families (ACF). In the eight years leading up to 2010 the number of California children in foster care fell from more than 90,000 to 60,198. In Los Angeles County, as the Times itself reports, where there were 57,000 children in care in 1997 there are 18,800 today.

With this sea change came new opportunities and challenges for Child Protective Services from Honolulu to Hartford. The challenge came in federal financing, which re-reimburses state and county child welfare administrations per child. This creates what many in the field call a "perverse incentive," in which departments lose money as they engage in the research-backed practice of re-uniting children with biological families, adoption and guardianship with family or another loving adult as opposed to conventional out-of-home foster care.

In evidence-based practice across the country, innovative administrations had proven that in many cases keeping children with families and supporting programs that help families do that resulted in better outcomes for children. The problem was that administrations, while successfully keeping children out of foster care, were working themselves out of their federal funding; and social workers, the people best equipped to solve the complicated family issues that lead to foster care in the first place, had dwindling resources with which to do just that.

This has, in large part, driven a movement for federal foster care finance reform. In 1994 the ACF offered state and county administrations the option of a Title IV-E Waiver as a demonstration of alternative ways to fund child welfare administrations. IVE refers to the federal funding stream dedicated to foster children, and the waiver refers to increased flexibility for counties and states that take on the agreement.

In 2007, Los Angeles County was among a score of counties and states that had opted into the Waiver. In exchange for flexibility in spending, the county agreed to a cap on available federal funding.

By accepting the cap, critics like L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslovsky, and apparently the Los Angeles Times, argue that Department now has a reverse perverse incentive to push children back into family homes.

"Yaroslavsky questioned whether the department's drive to reduce the number of children removed from their families and placed in foster care has led it to leave too many children in unsafe conditions," the Times reported on Oct. 18.

This assertion was followed with an analysis of the Title IV-E waiver's impact on children, stating that: "Others who have studied the waiver program say that earlier indicators were already suggesting problems."

The "others" were actually one person, Charlie Ferguson, the Principal Investigator of California's Title IV-E Child Welfare Waiver Demonstration Capped Allocation Project Evaluation. The "problems" were actually one data point, free of context. In a discussion of data involving children who had not been removed by DCFS after one instance of a substantiated allegation of abuse, the Times wrote that Ferguson said officials, "found that those children experienced an increased rate of substantiated abuse within a year. The rate has increased by 19% since the Title IV-E waiver began in 2007."

Ferguson says that the statements attributed to him came from the IV-E Interim Evaluation Report of which he was the author. "The report is more than 120 pages long," he explains. "What got highlighted was one particular change in percentages in one particular indicator among a host of indicators." While the number did go up 19% as the Times states, that is the difference between 9.6% and 11.4%. As Ferguson points out, this "particular change in percentages in one particular indicator among a host of indicators, " only represents two data points, one prior to the waiver's start and one less than a year in. While Ferguson says that any increase in abuse or allegations thereof is concerning, as the Times notes, it is important to understand both percentages fall in the 5-year range of children enduring abuse after one substantiated case. The percentage in question was higher in 2002, five years before the cap.

"As the evaluator having written the report I would prefer that the larger context be included," Ferguson says. "Anytime anything is looked at I would want general context so that a particular number did not sit there on its own."

This statistic, the linchpin of the Times' theory, has been alluded in two stories since being floated, on its own, without the context so critical to its usefulness. No clarification has ever been put forward.

In writing about the tragedy of children's deaths, the Times was left with three choices: face this challenge with the sober mind needed help make the dying stop, spiral into understandable irrationality, or worse: approach this ultimate human evil without adequate respect and delicacy, only to be infected by it.

To speculate on what path the Times has chosen would be conjecture. But, with the picture more clearly painted, we as the reading public can collectively stare at the evil in us that allows children to die and must now rationally determine how to cast it out forever.

Editor's note: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that Michael Gennaco requested a correction from the Los Angeles Times in an email on October 14, 2010. This post has been updated to reflect that Mr. Gennaco's email did not include a correction request. (On November 18, 2010, the Los Angeles Times issued a response to the criticism over its coverage.)

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