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Human Services and the Media

It may be difficult but human services departments should be doggedly trying to establish relationships with editors, reporters and bloggers.

Hat with card reading "press"
This late August headline in the Albany Times Union -- my local paper of choice -- got my blood boiling: "NYS OCFS paid out more than 180,000 dollars to support adopted children who were deceased."

I can only imagine the collective eye rolling among citizen Times Union readers: "Bungling bureaucrats blowing taxpayer money on dead kids! What an outrage!"

But what got my blood boiling wasn't the fact that the New York State Office of Children and Family Services had mailed out $180,000 in checks to 25 adoptive parents of "hard-to-place and handicapped children" who were no longer living. What got my blood boiling was what the article didn't say: that those 25 mistakes were out of 49,000 cases. In other words, a department that is being crushed under the twin realities of rising demand and falling resources oversees a program with an error rate that would be the absolute envy of any private-sector operation: .05 percent. Now that's news.

The Times Union wasn't the only outlet that sensationalized the story. A Gannett wire story noted that the problem payments had been "doled out," as though government bureaucrats were just pouring money down a sink hole. Never mind that OCFS doesn't actually decide who gets these payments -- that's a county social services department decision.

A good editor would have instantly asked how the amount paid out in error stacks up against the total, and then required the reporter to put all of that information in the article. But then the paper wouldn't have had nearly as juicy a headline. Payments to deceased children is much more titillating than: "NYS OCFS and county bureaucrats could teach the private sector a lesson in system effectiveness."

A huge part of my frustration at these sorts of stories derives from the fact that a hardworking group of public employees that are actually performing very well overall just can't seem to get their story out. They're either muzzled by upper-level executives, just not very good at media relations or are surrounded by media outlets too lazy or indifferent to get the story right -- or do stories about what's going right in the first place.

Some human services departments are muzzled by mayors, county executives or governors who don't trust subordinates to deal effectively with the media, or who have different notions of how to respond during a human services crisis. I understand that. But there are also those human services officials out there who hunker in the bunker whenever the press starts sniffing around.

In part that's because when things go bad in human services, they tend to go really, really bad. When that happens it's hard to get up and try to explain the difficult circumstances under which these systems operate, along with the complexity of the rules and regulations governing them. And it's never really an easy sell to be explaining just how well a department runs overall when something horrible has just happened.

A prime example of this dynamic is in full media glare right now in Los Angeles, where a string of high-profile child fatalities has the Los Angeles Department of Children and Families (DCF) reeling.

The bitter, open warfare between the press, politicians and the department is clearly not doing children and families in L.A. County any good at all, and it would be encouraging to see the media step back from its regular attacks on the L.A. DCF and actually try to understand the incredibly difficult world in which all L.A. DCF staff have to operate.

DCF Director Patricia S. Ploehn did pen an op-ed that ran in the Los Angeles Times recently that pointed out that her department is responsible for the safety of more than 32,000 children, and that "we have a better safety record than many other metropolitan agencies." But that's probably not going to interest -- or sway -- members of the media in L.A. who out for blood right now. At the same time, the L.A. DCF clearly does have operational problems that need to be investigated and dealt with.

In other words, this is always going to be a very difficult dance. To the extent possible, every large human services department in the country should be making it a point to compile and publicize the real numbers involved in what they do. They should be putting together positive human interest stories and pushing those out to anyone who will listen.

Most important, they should be doggedly trying to establish relationships with editors, reporters and bloggers so that when something bad does happen, human services officials will at least have a fighting chance to get their side of the story out.

Meanwhile, the media needs to accept its share of the blame. No human services agency deserves a pass when something goes bad or they make mistakes. But agencies like the NYS OCFS, which actually does an excellent job working with its nearly 60 partner counties in New York, certainly deserves better than the treatment they got in the Albany Times Union.

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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