Winter 2000

Caught in a Master Narrative

It’s Why Many Stories About Child Welfare Get It Wrong.

By Richard Wexler
Death did not come quickly for four-year-old Caprice Reid. She was tied to a chair. She was denied food and water. She was beaten with sticks. It took four days for her to die.

She died in Brooklyn. But New York City’s newspapers paid remarkably little RELATED ARTICLE
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- Richard Wexler
attention. It made the front page of The New York Times only once and then only as a news peg for a broader story. Among the tabloids only Newsday gave it much play, and only briefly.

A recent search of the Nexis database finds 36 stories that even mention Caprice Reid. For another New York City child who died a horrible death, Elisa Izquierdo, there are 1,006.

Ask some of the same journalists who vividly remember the death of Elisa Izquierdo about Caprice Reid, as I have done, and what you’ll get back are mostly blank stares.

In Florida, I ask reporters who can cite chapter and verse about the death of a child named Bradley McGee if they’ve ever heard of Corey Greer, who died a horrible death of dehydration as an infant. I get the same result. Why are Elisa and Bradley remembered while Corey and Caprice are forgotten? Because the deaths of Elisa Izquierdo and Bradley McGee fit the “master narrative” of much of what journalists report and write about child welfare: Each of these children was killed by a birth parent. Corey Greer and Caprice Reid don’t fit the master narrative: They died, inconveniently, in foster homes.

In a recent issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, Trudy Lieberman wrote that “Much self-censorship springs from what former St. Louis Post Dispatch editor William Woo calls the ‘master narrative,’ which he defines as the template reporters bring to an event or issue.… Editors and reporters absorb the conventional wisdom and often don’t stray from its acceptable borders.” The master narrative is not the result of conscious decisions or edicts from above. (One of the few times I ever agreed with my former managing editor at the Albany Times-Union was when he wrote that “there are no media conspiracies—we’re not that well organized.”)

In child welfare, the master narrative springs from several factors. It seems to make sense intuitively. If a child is left in danger, there must be some policy that calls for it. Then there is “the Nexis effect,” in which the same people are quoted saying the same thing in story after story. Combine that with the outrage and revulsion that the abuse of a child produces in all of us, and you have all the ingredients for a narrative that is unlikely to be questioned before it gets into print or is broadcast.

But the master narrative that underpins this coverage of child welfare is wrong. And journalists’ tenacity in clinging to it has had tragic consequences for children. It has led to the creation of policies that have torn thousands of children needlessly from safe and loving—but poor—homes. And it has set off “foster care panics,” in which huge numbers of additional children are needlessly removed, decisions that endanger children’s lives. My point in raising these issues is not to persuade journalists of an alternative narrative, only to provide one and suggest that it deserves to be a part of the public child welfare debate.

The master narrative holds that when children “known to the system” die, it must be because that system bends over backwards to keep children in, or return them to, dangerous homes in the name of “family preservation.” Furthermore, the master narrative tells us that children are forced to languish in foster care for years because family preservation fanatics insist on lavishing services on the children’s ne’er-do-well parents in a futile effort to reunite parents and children.

By the mid-1990’s, the status of these statements in news stories had evolved from claims attributed to named sources to statements of “fact,” appearing without attribution in a kind of boilerplate synopsis in story after story. It is now the case that when reporters call me about child welfare stories, they often start off by asking me about “the conflict between child protection and family preservation.” But before I respond to that question, I need to challenge its premise and explain (and yes, sometimes argue) that, in fact, child protection is impossible without family preservation.

The term “family preservation” was invented in the 1970’s to describe one specific type of intervention, a program called Intensive Family Preservation Services (IFPS). This approach to improving child welfare challenges more than a century of orthodoxy and thus provoked a lot of hostility within the mainstream child welfare establishment. Yet those within the establishment who were hostile to it essentially hijacked this very narrowly defined term and slapped it onto any decision that was made to leave any child in any home under any circumstances, even if that family had been nowhere near a real IFPS program. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that, for most children most of the time, genuine IFPS programs are safer than foster care, both because the programs have so many safeguards built in and because study after study has found that foster care is very dangerous. (Space prohibits listing the studies here, but they are discussed on our Web site, www.nccpr.org.)

The real reason children “known to the system” sometimes die is almost always because an under-prepared, under-trained, underpaid caseworker with an overwhelming caseload made a life-and-death-decision, and blew it. Scapegoating family preservation actually worsens this problem, since it sets off “foster care panics,” bringing many more children needlessly into an already overburdened system. Workers become so busy with these children that they have even less time to assist children in real danger. After such “panics” in Illinois, Connecticut and New York City, child abuse deaths actually increased.

The master narrative goes on to place blame for children languishing in foster care on a 1980 federal law that required “reasonable efforts” to keep families together. But in the late 1970’s, there were as many children stuck in foster care, relative to the total child population, as there are today. So the first question an informed reporter might want to ask is: “If the problem is with a 1980 law, why were all those children in foster care years earlier?” In fact, the 1980 law was the first legislation intended to prevent children from languishing in foster care by emphasizing both keeping children in their own homes and increasing the likelihood of adoption once a child was removed. Indeed, it was the first federal law to set time limits on children’s stays in foster care.

For a very brief period, it worked well. But the law was one of the last initiatives of the Carter administration. The Reagan administration refused to enforce it, sending a signal to the states that they could go back to business as usual. They did. Since 1985, the foster care population has doubled. So the second paradox journalists might want to clarify is: “If family preservation has so dominated the system, how did all those children get into foster care?”

The real answer is that children got there because family preservation has never dominated the child welfare system. Often, children are removed not because their parents were brutally abusive or hopelessly addicted but because their family’s poverty led to conditions such as a lack of adequate food, clothing and shelter, and those conditions were confused with “neglect.” Other cases fall on a broad continuum, the parents neither all victim nor all villain. Once taken, children are filed away and forgotten as overwhelmed caseworkers rush on to the next crisis. Children don’t languish in foster care because the system does everything for families. They languish because the system does almost nothing for families.

But the myths about the system became powerful enough to prompt Congress to pass a new law in 1997, the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act, which effectively makes “reasonable efforts” optional, and pushes adoption-as-panacea. There already is ample evidence that this new approach is failing.

When I offer this information to journalists, what I often hear in response is, “But everybody says the system emphasized family preservation.” But a close look at three recent in-depth stories and series suggests a constricted definition of just who “everybody” includes.

No reporter would do a large-scale overview story or series about criminal justice without talking to a single defendant or defense attorney. Yet when the Traverse City (Michigan) Record-Eagle published a five-part series on foster care in May, the reporter included the views of not one birth parent. Nor was there any comment from any lawyer who represents a birth parent, nor from a lawyer or advocate who regularly deals with the problems of poor people (one of the better sources for reporting on the widespread problem of the confusion of poverty with neglect). Instead, the journalist declared that “some parents and others disagree with the shift away from family preservation at all costs….” (I’ve seen that “at all costs” line in at least a dozen stories, falsely presented by reporters as incontrovertible fact.)

This problem is not confined to small newspapers.

The (Raleigh) News & Observer ran two lengthy stories about foster care in May. Displaying no evidence of having talked to anyone who would question the master narrative, the reporter flatly declared that “some people believe that children and parents belong together no matter what” [emphasis added]. I have never met such a person, nor does the reporter produce one. The reporter goes on to portray the 1980 law precisely backwards, declaring that “federal law [formerly] favored placing children in long-term foster care as long as it took for parents to take control of their own lives, then their children.”

Similarly, a front-page child welfare story in The Boston Globe declared that “family reunification” has been “the concrete goal” for generations. It quoted only foster parents, an adoption attorney, and a spokeswoman for the state RELATED ARTICLE
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- Patricia Callahan
Department of Social Services. Reporters also sometimes object to my claims of a dichotomy in coverage of deaths depending on where a child dies, noting that they have “covered” abuse in foster care. Certainly, the story is not ignored entirely. Indeed, within the past year the Dayton Daily News and The Denver Post did excellent series on the topic. But there is a huge difference in stories about abuse in foster care and abuse by birth parents in the category best called “lessons learned.” In The Denver Post’s series, solutions proposed revolved solely around toughening licensing requirements, adding inspectors, and adding a few more categories of felons to the list of people who can’t be foster parents. Foster care as an institution remained unquestioned. Nobody was quoted as advocating the abolition of foster care or even that there be less of it. In contrast, the near uniform response when a child dies in the home of birth parents is to condemn the whole idea of family preservation and call for its elimination or drastic curtailment.

No editorial writer or op-ed author would opine that “Caprice Reid is dead. She was a foster child. We’d better abolish foster care.” (Nor should they—for some children, foster care is essential.) But no cycle of coverage of the death of a child in his own home is complete without the mandatory “See, it’s all the fault of family preservation” op-ed, newspaper editorial or column.

Much child welfare coverage also is characterized by a double standard of skepticism. Often I have pointed out that after foster care panics, child abuse deaths actually increase, and reporters have asked pointed, skeptical questions about cause and effect, as they should. But where is this skepticism when the panic begins? Where is it when officials promise that drastically curbing family preservation will reduce child abuse deaths? To be fair, The New York Times reminded readers of these promises when child abuse deaths increased in that city. But to the best of my knowledge, no newspaper in Illinois or Connecticut reported that in those states the “panics” were followed by more child abuse deaths.

There is excellent work being done on child welfare issues all over the country, sometimes by reporters who have to fight not only a system shrouded in secrecy but lack of interest and support from higher-ups at their newspapers. But excellence in child welfare reporting is like excellence in journalism in general: It requires questioning the master narrative.

Journalists in Chicago might want to begin by considering two questions:
  • Who was Joseph Wallace?
  • Who was Antonio Moseley?
Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, based in Alexandria, Virginia. Wexler was a reporter for 17 years and a journalism professor for three. He spent much of that time covering child welfare, work that culminated in a book, “Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse.” He is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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