What it’s like to report on child welfare

One year into my job as a child welfare reporter. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Being a child welfare reporter is a dream job. Every time I meet a young person, a mother or a social worker on this “beat”, I’m reminded that this reporting really matters.

The stories I choose to tell could potentially help realize better outcomes for the youth who are living in foster care, group homes or some other in-between place, or the families battling poverty, addiction, mental health barriers, intergenerational trauma, and the ongoing impacts of colonization. I have an opportunity to help break down complexity in a system that is staggeringly complex, even for the most seasoned social workers, lawyers and journalists.

At the same time, my stories, if told carelessly, without journalistic rigor and heart, could just as easily make life harder for these people. I feel the weight of this responsibility, the paralyzing fear of getting a story wrong. The more I know about this system and the people who live and work within it, the harder it is to write.

But I believe journalists have a role to play. People who have the most to lose from irresponsible journalism have assured me of this. We’ve done harm, but we’re needed, they say. So what can we do to ensure we’re contributing in a good way?

For starters, we can show up and listen.

In September, a group of journalists sat down with about a dozen social workers at Surrounded by Cedar, a Delegated Aboriginal Agency in Victoria, B.C., which provides services to Indigenous children and families. The visit was part of a workshop series Discourse organized for journalists covering B.C.’s child welfare system. For the better part of the afternoon, we listened as social workers shared stories about the impact of sensational, shallow or insensitive reporting on their work and their lives.

Their stories prompted me to ask, “If journalists have messed up coverage of this system, and continue to do it all the time, then why shouldn’t we just like back out completely and leave it to the [Representative for Children and Youth] to do investigations? Is there a valuable role for us to play?”

Absolutely, said one social worker. Yes, said another.

“I have a 15-year-old daughter who has to look at these stories and she gets an impression of herself, and it’s all about her connection with her own people,” said Seneca Ambers, who comes from the Ławitʼsis-Maʼa̱mtagila and ʼNa̱mǥis tribes of the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw (Kwakwala speaking people). As a lifelong connection worker, Ambers tries to find the biological family of children in care with an aim to unite or reunite them. She’d been silent the whole afternoon. As she talked about her daughter, she started to cry.

“I think media has a role in changing that stigma that gets placed on our children,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to change how my children view themselves.”

Indigenous children are vastly overrepresented in Canada’s child welfare systems. As journalists, we have an obligation to place this hard truth in a meaningful context, in recognition of the role our industry played in supporting colonization and marginalizing Indigenous people, and in the spirit of reconciliation.

“That’s how we teach the next generation of non-Indigenous children,” said another social worker. “If we are continuing to portray them as less than, how are we helping the next generation of people? How are we helping our country to overcome generations of trauma? You’re just continuing the same problem.”

We can make generous assumptions and build relationships.

Brené Brown is a researcher with a PhD in social work, and for the past 16 years, she’s been studying vulnerability, empathy and shame. In her book, Rising Strong, she shared a teaching by Jean Kantambu Latting, one of her mentors and colleagues at the University of Houston. I think of it constantly, in my reporting and in my personal relationships.

Brown wrote, “Whenever someone would bring up a conflict with a colleague [Latting] would ask, ‘What is the hypothesis of generosity? What is the most generous assumption you can make about this person’s intentions or what this person said?’”

I don’t remember being encouraged to make generous assumptions about people in journalism school. Instead, I remember being taught to be skeptical of others’ stories and suspicious of intentions. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not suggesting we do away with skepticism. It’s a useful tool when interviewing someone who holds a lot of institutional power on, for example, Parliament Hill or Bay Street. But it’s not the most useful tool when you’re trying to build relationships with people who’ve been marginalized. Many people in the child welfare system live with considerable barriers and few privileges. They struggle to be heard, let alone believed.

Of course, we need to be rigorous in checking facts and verifying information. We still need muck-raking journalism that sheds light on buried truths and holds power to account. But we also need to be mindful of Canada’s colonial history and the journalism industry’s incessant, middle class whiteness (it’s incredibly homogeneous.) We need to be mindful of power, privilege and impact of trauma in this space and adjust our approach accordingly. We need to be just as diligent about building respectful relationships as we are about tearing things apart.

We can report sensitively when something tragic happens.

Jennifer Chuckry is Surrounded by Cedar’s executive director. In her experience, journalists can be pretty tone-deaf in the wake of community tragedy. “There’s often these big media blowouts when something goes wrong or there’s an RCY report released or a child in care has died,” she says. “You’re in this state of shock that a child that you’re responsible for has passed away, and you’ve got somebody just grilling you on the phone, and you can’t say nothing about the years of good work that went into caring for that young person.”

“That’s not okay,” she says.

Social workers and agency directors have also told me that the only time they hear from reporters is after a tragedy. They say positive developments in the community, hard-wrought wins, often get ignored.

Chuckry offers an example of an event that the organization has tried to get media to cover in the past. “Surrounded by Cedar has been involved with an event called the Aboriginal Back-to-School Picnic for years.” She says the event is about creating new positive associations around the return to school, in light of the residential school legacy. “2200 bags of supplies were distributed in here Victoria, up the Island, on the mainland and in the North. I haven’t seen even one single media report on it.”

We can be clear about our intentions.

When working on a long-term project or a journalistic beat with no end in sight, it’s important to keep mission in mind. I like to check in with myself and measure my work against my mission by asking these questions:  

  • How will this story help to break down complexity?
  • Am I helping to set the table for meaningful conversations? Am I bringing people together around solutions — or deepening divisions in a system that’s fraught with adversarial relationships?
  • How does this story challenge stereotypes or perpetuate them?
  • In breaking this story, what else might I break in the process? What are the potential negative consequences of telling this story? Who stands to lose? Is it still worth it?

We can work together to develop better ways of reporting and stronger stories.

I’ve spent a lot of time this year organizing with other journalists and our youth media fellows, and I’ve seen that there’s appetite for more collaborative work, especially among young journalists. Most of the journalists who came to our free workshop series came without the backing of a big organization, bootstrapping a budget together for two days in Victoria. I was inspired by their curiosity and their humility.

I believe journalists like these ones have the capacity to bring about significant change, to help realize better outcomes for kids and families. I’ve been working with some of them to organize Child Welfare Media Day, on Nov. 22; it’s a first step toward building a network of journalists who are committed to better coverage of this complex system. And I’ve seen the potential for a much broader network. Journalists across Canada and further afoot have told me they’re interested in working more collaboratively.

In a system where meaningful data is scarce (or incredibly difficult to analyze — for example, try making comparisons between child protection trial delays over time) and reporting ethics are vague, there’s so much to gain from working together. [end]

This piece was edited by Lindsay Sample.


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