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How the Media Can Stigmatize Parents and Separate Families

Stories that uncritically blame child welfare agencies for the deaths of children at the hands of their parents can contribute to increases in child removals—with devastating consequences for families.

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The public’s perception of crime is often significantly out of alignment with the reality. This is caused, in part, by frequently sensationalist, decontextualized media coverage. Media Frame seeks to critique journalism on issues of policing and prisons, challenge the standard media formulas for crime coverage, and push media to radically rethink how they inform the public on matters of public safety.

A November 2019 New York Times story begins with a chilling scene: The decomposed body of a 2-month-old boy named Dylan Groves is found wrapped in plastic bags at the bottom of a well in Portsmouth, Ohio. It’s something out of a horror film, except it’s real. 

The story is gut-wrenching. In it, we learn that Dylan was removed from his parents’ custody when he was born and returned after 12 days in foster care. We read about the graphic details of Dylan’s untimely death, which was deemed the result of “homicidal violence.” We are told that amphetamines were detected in his system. We hear that thousands of people have succumbed to unintentional overdoses in Ohio, and that tens of thousands of children have been removed from their homes because of their parents’ drug use. We are left with no doubt about who the villains are in this story, and where to place the blame: It’s with the junkies.

“‘If it wasn’t for Dylan being in the hands of those people,’ Ms. Bowling [the foster mother] said, ‘he would be alive today,’” the story reads.

It’s worth reiterating that the events depicted in this story are devastating. No child should die by abuse or neglect. But when news outlets focus on these tragic deaths—placing blame on child welfare agencies for reunifying a family and pointing to the parents’ drug addiction or mental illness as the fatal flaw—they implicate whole populations as inherently dangerous. Press coverage that points the finger uncritically only encourages reactionary, scientifically unsound policies and raises the likelihood that these populations will experience discriminatory family dissolution.

“[Child maltreatment fatalities] are very rare,” said Michelle Burrell, managing attorney for the family defense practice with the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem. A high-profile death like Dylan’s, she said, “is one of those instances where the public perception doesn’t equal the reality.”

But public perception is powerful. High-profile child maltreatment deaths can drive local “foster care panics,” in which child welfare agencies deemed responsible for the death respond by increasing child removals and decreasing reunification. 

Children are not any safer after these panics, said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. “There is absolutely no evidence that big spikes in foster care placements are followed by increased child safety,” he said. Increasing foster care placements burdens the system, making those placements less safe. “The more you overload the system, the greater the temptation to lower standards,” he said. Children who are placed in foster care are also less likely than children who are not to finish high school and more likely to end up incarcerated as adults.

Outsize media coverage of infant deaths, and the panics they inspire, can also drive real, harmful policymaking. In 2014, the Miami Herald published a series of investigative reports on child maltreatment fatalities in Florida. The series received national acclaim, eventually winning the prestigious Knight Award for Public Service. Included in the series were stories like “The Littlest Victims of Florida’s Drug Binge” and others that demonized parents suffering from substance use disorders and mental illness.

After that, Florida’s Department of Children and Families, which handles child protection cases, went into overdrive. In a 2015 Orlando Sentinel story, Joe Durso, vice president for public affairs at Community Based Care of Central Florida—a private nonprofit that handles court involved cases in Orange, Osceola, and Seminole Counties—said that one of the main factors driving the increase in child removals was “the media attention that surrounded a lot of cases [in 2014].” 

The state enacted a number of measures that prioritized child safety over family preservation—missing the obvious fact that family unity and child safety are often one in the same. Florida increased funding for rapid-response investigators and for the implementation of predictive analytics that target low-income families. According to the Florida Department of Children and Families 2017 annual performance report, child removals steadily increased statewide after the changes. In 2018, removals dropped, but out-of-home placements increased because fewer kids were sent home. 

During this time, drug use was a key factor for child welfare involvement in Florida homes—as it has been and continues to be across the country. State laws and child welfare policies are exceptionally punitive toward pregnant and parenting people who use drugs. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia regard substance use during pregnancy as child abuse. Alabama and South Carolina criminally prosecute people who use non-prescribed substances while pregnant. North Carolina is currently in the process of passing a bill that would allow child services to significantly expedite the termination of parental rights in some cases involving drug use during pregnancy. 

Child welfare agencies can also open investigations into parents who use prescribed medications while pregnant, such as methadone or buprenorphine. Such drugs often result in infant withdrawal but are nonetheless the healthiest option for both parent and baby in situations where a pregnant person is addicted to opioids.

These policies and laws are not harmless. A recent study from the RAND corporation found that states with punitive policies about substance use during pregnancy had increased rates of infant withdrawal. The study suggested that one likely cause is that people who fear being jailed or having their kids taken away avoid medical care—something treating physicians have long known. 

Stories that conflate drug use and addiction with bad parenting also have a real impact in court. In 2016, 6-year-old Zymere Perkins was starved and beaten to death. His tragic homicide grabbed headlines, including this one in the New York Post: “Zymere Perkins’ sickening death exposes NYC’s unforgivable child welfare failures.” Burrell, the Harlem attorney, recalled that in the immediate aftermath of the case, “the amount of cases we picked up in court rose immensely.” 

“Case workers were on high alert around this idea that they could be missing something, so rather than taking the chance of working with parents, they escalated it to court involvement,” Burrell said. And court-involved child welfare cases often result in the removal of a child from the parent’s custody temporarily, if not longer. 

Toya Clebourn-McPherson, who worked for 12 years as a child welfare agent in Philadelphia, said that this escalation occurs because after a high-profile death, caseworkers are “working out of fear.”

“You start to think ‘if I miss anything and something happens to the child, I could go to jail, or it’s my fault if something happens to the child and I missed something,’” she said.

Now it’s possible a new foster panic may happen. Less than a month after the Times published its story on Dylan Groves, ProPublica and the Boston Globe released findings that the number of child maltreatment deaths between 2011 and 2015 was likely higher than child welfare agencies had reported. Coupled with the report, ProPublica published a story highlighting the role of illegal drugs in one fatality and then extrapolated to claim that states are not doing enough to protect substance-affected newborns.

“People think if child protective services is coming to your door, it’s because you deserve it,” said Burrell, even though other factors like race and class often play a role. That misconception is unlikely to change if major, trusted media outlets continue buying easy clicks with tragedy-inspired pathos.