THURSDAY, MAY 13, 2021
Let's take a look at the "research:" Did Ohio's foster care system fail the late Ma'Khia Bryant and her three younger siblings?
Did it fail her "in critical ways?"
We can't answer that question! In fairness, the front-page report in the New York Times didn't exactly make that claim, though it certainly seemed to make that claim. As we noted yesterday, here's what the Times report said:
BOGEL-BURROUGHS ET AL (5/9/21): Ms. Bryant’s tragic death was also preceded by a turbulent journey through the foster care system, which had cycled Ma’Khia through at least five placements in two years—after her own mother was found to be negligent—despite efforts by their grandmother to reunite the family.
Ohio places children in foster care at a rate 10 percent higher than the national average, and child welfare officials here are considerably less likely than in the country as a whole to place children with their relatives. Black children, like Ma’Khia and her sister, account for nearly a third of children removed from homes—nearly twice their proportion in the population.
A review of Ma’Khia’s pathway through foster care shows that it failed her in critical ways.
Research has demonstrated that children fare far better when they remain with family members, a practice known as kinship care. It also shows that each successive placement causes additional trauma, further setting back a child in crisis.
“Everybody knows and the research has proven over and over and over again that the best placement for children is with their kin,” said Ronald R. Browder, the president and chief executive of the Ohio Federation for Health Equity and Social Justice. “But the focus has always been on foster care.”
"Research has demonstrated that children fare far better when they remain with family members," Bogel-Burroughs and his fellow reporters said.
(Their editor or editors went unnamed.)
“Everybody knows and the research has proven over and over and over again that the best placement for children is with their kin,” one local activist was quoted saying. “But the focus has always been on foster care.”
(Was he speaking about foster care in the state of Ohio, or was he speaking about foster care nationwide? There's no way to tell from the way he's quoted. So it goes at the New York Times.)
At any rate, whatever! Despite the fact that everyone allegedly knows these things, "Ohio places children in foster care at a rate 10 percent higher than the national average," the young Timesman thoughtfully said. And not only that:
:"Black children...account for nearly a third of children removed from homes—nearly twice their proportion in the population."
Is that in Ohio, or is that nationwide? There's no way to tell from this front-page report, but the whole compendium sounded quite bad for Ohio.
Please note: Bogel-Burroughs never explicitly said that the Ohio system "failed [Bryant] in critical ways." He merely said that "foster care" failed her in critical ways, but he plainly seemed to be pointing the finger at the Ohio system.
Speaking very frankly, this presentation by the Times' "diaper dandies" struck us as arrogant, but also as strikingly dumb. It also struck us as scripted—as the kind of easy, Storyline-derived novelized work which spills from the soul of the Times.
Where does Storyline enter this picture? We would suggest starting here:
In the case of this fatal shooting, it was hard to blame the police officer, who arrived at the scene of a violent fight in which it seemed that Bryant was about to stab a young woman. With that avenue closed down, why not blame the foster care system, employing the kind of underfed analysis which gives Times readers an easy-reader novel but explains nothing in the end?
In our view, it's plain that Ma'Khia Bryant and her three younger siblings have all received insufficient help in their young lives—have been failed in various ways.
Tomorrow, we'll try to sketch that story for you. But no, we won't be inclined to start with Ohio's foster care system.
That said, is something wrong, in some systematic way, with that state's foster care practices? We don't have the slightest idea, in part because we read the New York Times' front-page report.
How weak was the journalism these "dandies" provided? Let's take a look at the research!
The passage we have posted above came right at the start of the Sunday front-page report. We've posted paragraphs 7-12 of a lengthy, 81-paragraph report.
Right at the start of this front-page report, the diaper dandies take their shots at the Ohio system. But just how strong were there analytical skills?
How strong were there analytical skills? Let's take a look at the record:
We'll start with the initial claim about the Ohio system. That initial, foundational claim goes exactly like this:
"Ohio places children in foster care at a rate 10 percent higher than the national average."
For all we know, that claim may even be accurate! That said, the intrepid Timespersons offered no source for this foundational claim, nor did they offer a link to any data source.
Meanwhile, and it ought to be said—we aren't entirely sure what that claim specifically means.
Does it mean that, after adjusting for population, Ohio has ten percent more kids in foster care than the national average? Does it mean that, among children referred to child care services, the state sends ten percent more into foster care as compared to other states?
Whatever the claims specifically means, might we note a basic point? That particular claim, even if true, doesn't strike us as recording a mind-blowing level of difference:
Does our nation condemn 1% of our kids to foster care, while Ohio banishes 1.1%? That would be ten percent more. Is that the magnitude of difference which we're talking about?
Meanwhile, is it possible that there could be local reasons for some such ten percent difference? As we noted in Monday's report, when the Washington Post assigned two veteran reporters to profile the Ohio system, they started by mentioning this:
CRAIG AND LUDLOW (4/30/21): Over the past decade, Ohio has been hit hard by the nationwide opioid crisis, leading to a surge in the number of foster children, officials said. The number of children in the state’s care has grown from 12,000 in 2012 to about 15,000 today.
That construction is a bit clumsy, but has Ohio been hit especially hard by the opioid crisis? If so, might that explain why the state has been exceeding the national average of banishments to foster care by ten percent, if it actually has been?
Might other demographic factors explain the state's alleged divergence from the norm? We don't have the slightest idea, but you can make the following bet:
The diaper dandies at the Times don't have the first idea either! Almost surely, such fundamental statistical questions never entered anyone's head, including those of their editors. In one major area after another, that simply isn't the way reporting is done at the modern Times.
If Ohio exceeds the national foster care rate, does that mean it's failing its children? We don't have the slightest idea, and neither does anyone who read the Times' pleasing report.
That said, the Times report tracked familiar contemporary ground. Too many kids are being condemned, and too many of those kids are black! We can't easily blame the policeman this time, and so we'll find our scapegoat in this other available place.
In these ways, Times subscribers are reassured about their moral goodness. The Times subscriber is better, far better, than the troglodyte rustbelt types who are bungling their state's foster care in the ways the Times has described!
Ohio is condemning too many children to foster care! Indeed, "research has demonstrated that children fare far better when they remain with family members, " we're instantly told—although we aren't told whether it would have been better to leave these particular kids with their particular family members in this particular case.
At any rate, the diaper dandies did offer a link when they referred to the "research." Hungrily, we clicked the link, eager to learn what we could.
When we clicked the dandies' link, we found what we often find in such cases, given the way Our Town's biggest news orgs work. We found a single opinion column—a single column which simply says that "research" has made that demonstration.
Here is the passage in question. No further link is offered:
EPSTEIN (7/1/17): Research confirms that compared to children in nonrelative care, children in kinship homes fare better, as measured by several child well-being factors. Children in the care of relatives experience increased stability, with fewer placement changes, decreased likelihood of disruption and not as many school changes. Relatives are more likely than nonrelatives to support the child through difficult times and less likely to request removal of problematic children to whom they are related. The children themselves generally express more positive feelings about their placements and are less likely to run away.
On average, the highlighted statement may be perfectly accurate! (Or not.)
That said, we note that the passage only says that children "fare better" when they remain with family, not that they fare far better. In fairly typical fashion, the diaper dandies—or their unnamed editor—decided to spin this claim up one additional notch.
That one claim, by that one person, is the only source the dandies provide in support of their foundational claim. Again, we aren't saying the claim made by that source is wrong. We're merely saying that the dandies show no particular sign of knowing whether the claim, which someone chose to embellish, is actually correct.
That claim, about what "research confirms," may be perfectly accurate! Having said that, we'll also say this:
The opinion column to which the Times links was published by the American Bar Association. The ABA isn't a fly-by-night social media site, but we can't help noting the fact that the ABA appended this disclaimer to the opinion column:
ABA (7/1/17): The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.
That doesn't mean that those views are wrong. But again, if those views are actually right, they're only right on average. They can't tell us whether officials in the state of Ohio made the right choice in deciding that the Bryant kids wouldn't "fare far better" if left in their family's care.
The ABA was careful to note that the views expressed in that column don't represent ABA policy. We found something far more comically awful when we fact-checked the sources of Petula Dvorak's recent claims about the gender wage gap in the Washington Post.
We expect to return to that column in Saturday morning's report. For today, let's offer the following overview about the New York Times front-page report:
We've referred to the Times' listed reporters as "diaper dandies." We've done so because Bogel-Burroughs, the lead reporter, is just completing his second year out of college, and he was joined by another reporter who's at the Times for one year as part of the program which recently replaced the paper's intern program.
These cubs were joined by Ellen Barry, a fully experienced reporter. Helped along by their editors, the trio presented an instant critique of Ohio foster care which came straight out of clown school.
Is something wrong with Ohio's system? We have no idea. Neither does anyone who drew that conclusion from reading this front-page report.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But the dandies' critique of Ohio foster care should get any college journalism student a flat-out failing grade.
As a general matter, is something wrong with the way Ohio condemns kids to foster care? Does the number of kids so consigned suggest that something is wrong?
Does the fact that black kids get consigned to foster care at a disproportionate rate suggest that something is wrong? Under current rules, that judgment comes close to being required! But let's leave that for tomorrow.
Also tomorrow, we'll examine the central question in this tragic case. Was the state of Ohio wrong to send Ma'Khia Bryant and her siblings into foster care?
Who actually failed this teenaged girl, who died at age 16? Could it have been the state of Ohio, or might it have been someone else?
By the current rules of the game, only one answer was possible.
Scripting and Storyline may have kept the diaper dandies from speaking freely to that point. For our money, though, we will say this:
The Times assigned two diaper dandies to handle this very important topic. In this way, the famous newspaper may suggest that it loves Storyline, and low labor costs, more than it actually cares about kids like Ma'Khia Bryant.
Beyond that, Times subscribers are routinely failed when this newspaper plays this way. Can Our Town survive this culture?
Major experts suggest it cannot!
Tomorrow: Who seems to have failed these kids?