On the Road with FMC

A Time for Transparency & Ethical Journalism

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Isat next to a microbiologist on a recent flight to Washington D.C. As the plane approached the city, its monuments lit up against the night sky, she told me something phenomenal: E. coli, so maligned for a spate of deaths in the 1990s, is in fact a highly beneficial microbe, living in all of us.

Unsurprisingly, her reaction to my explanation of my work in foster care was to say, unthinkingly, that foster care is broken. As E. coli is wrongly seen as being only dangerous, so too is foster care seen as being only broken.

In both cases, the reason is a public perception fomented by the popular media's overzealous attention to cases of isolated tragedy. In the case of foster care, the story of child death and social worker malfeasance completely overshadows a much more complicated and honest story: one of a system that fails, but also, and more commonly, succeeds.

But the misinformation cannot only be ascribed to a negligent press corps. Rather, a culture of confidentiality riven through the foster care system and juvenile dependency courts contributes to the popular foster care myth in which the system has something to hide; by subconscious default, the children are themselves tainted by association with it.

In the end, it is the children who take the largest dram of this toxic mix. The myth hurts the system's capacity to recruit foster and adoptive families, contributes to the high turnover rates of leaders in public foster care agencies, and discourages a wider breadth of professionals from taking up social work as a "career."

To no small degree, the foster care myth is more dangerous to children than the system itself--something all but entirely obscured in the prevailing public discourse.

What is needed is an opportunity to encourage trust between the news media and the foster care system, in which the system trades some confidentiality for the journalist's binding oath that he or she will respect this increased transparency by agreeing to work in the child's best interests.

Nowhere is this opportunity riper than in our nation's juvenile dependency courts. Already, 24 states have presumptively open courts with respect to the news media, meaning that journalists can report on juvenile dependency hearings unless there is a strong argument against their presence. The prevailing argument for opening the courts in statute and case law is the positive social value of the court as a watched system.

In instances where courts have been opened to the media, there have been adverse affects on children. There are no known cases of journalists wantonly disclosing the identifying information that confidentiality laws are rightfully meant to protect. A stark example is the respectfulness of the nation's news media in not disclosing the names of the childrenturned-adults abused by Penn State's Jerry Sandusky. While the case was heard in criminal court, which is open to the public, journalists adhered to their existing ethical codes to protect the victims' identities.

Still, there exists among many in the foster care community--most notably the foster youth themselves--an understandable worry that some journalists will write stories that will hurt children. Further, they argue, a journalist's mere presence is an unreasonable burden on already scared, hurting, and traumatized children.

I do not step into this debate with the capacity to answer the question of whether one vision is more correct than the other. Rather, I argue that now is a time for foster children and all those engaged in standing up for their best interests--journalists included--to come to the table and see if an ethical, responsible agreement on opening all the nation's dependency courts can be made.

If such a deal were to be struck, the existing stone of mistrust between the foster care system and the news media would start to crumble. A watched system promises to be a better system, and that promises to better serve children.

That promise, I contend, is worth serious exploration. To this end, my organization, alongside partners in the realms of advocacy, foster care administration, journalism, juvenile dependency courts, and youth themselves, will convene to vote on a journalist code of ethics in exchange for increased, responsible media coverage of these critical hearings.

To find out more, call me directly at 510-334-8636.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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