As executive director of Christ Child House — a Detroit-based residential treatment center for severely troubled boys in foster care — John Yablonky faced a difficult decision when reporters from the Detroit Free Press proposed a multi-media project based on life for children in the home.
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On the upside, publicizing the boys' plight could generate more community concern and attract adoptive families. The project would also give the public a rare glimpse of the life of children in a residential treatment center and of the staffers who work daily to meet their needs.
But there were also great risks. Yablonky worried about staffers using excessive force during an intervention - which he said has happened at Christ Child House in the past. "We have a great staff, but not a perfect staff," he said.
He also worried that even a non-excessive or "appropriate" intervention could look bad to those who might disagree or question the institution's approach to stabilizing out-of-control children. Or that the media might mischaracterize certain episodes that unfolded in front of the camera.
"I believe in transparency," Yablonky continued. "But sometimes, the press can distort a thing."
Ultimately, Yablonky agreed to let the Free Press reporters in, but only under conditions that included not recording certain aspects of the program that Yablonky deemed too emotional or personal for the boys.
The result: a three-year project with results that have Yablonky "delighted," but that has drawn criticism from some quarters.
The project ran as a special supplement to the Free Press on Nov. 30, along with a Web-based version that features a series of short video clips, including interviews with children waiting to be adopted.
Considering the Idea
The genesis of the project goes back to the fall of 2005, when Free Press photographer Kathleen Galligan began taking pictures of boys Christ Child for the Michigan Heart Gallery, a photo database of children waiting to be adopted. Those familiar with the series said Galligan got the idea to do more in-depth stories on the boys. Later, reporter Robin Erb, videographer Brian Kaufman and photographer Regina Boone got involved in the project, which evolved to highlight the work and challenges associated with the mission at Christ Child.
Bill Johnson, the state official in charge of the Michigan Children's Institute, a division of the Michigan State Department of Human Services, had to give permission for the journalists' access.
"The kids wanted to be able to tell, from their point of view, what it's like, what their likes and dislikes are, what makes them happy, what makes them sad," Johnson said. "I came to the conclusion that since they wanted to do this, and talk about what it's like being in foster care, I thought we ought to be able to respect their wishes."
In many ways, this was a case in which wishes came true for many of those involved. Since the series ran, Yablonky says, the agency has gotten "tremendous support" from the public. "We've been getting 10 checks in the mail a day," Yablonky said two weeks after the project ran. One was for $1,000. Other donations have included clothing, supplies and offers to volunteer.
In the two weeks following the story, Christ Child House got 15 calls from people about adoption. "We might get one call a month normally," he said.
Not everyone is so pleased ...
One of the most vocal critics is Richard Wexler, executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, which advocates against institutional foster care. Wexler said the Free Press package was distorted, but not in the way that Yablonky feared.
"The stories presented a picture of the orphanage as ‘heaven' — which is about as distorted as child welfare reporting can get," Wexler said, criticizing how the Free Press collaborated with Christ Child. He said the paper should have looked at the facility through a more critical lens and included research about how institutional care can harm children's development.
"The story may have started out as an effort to promote adoption, but that's not where it ended up," Wexler said. "It ended up as a tribute to an orphanage."
Wexler's criticisms were echoed by Joe Kroll, executive director of the North American Council on Adoptable Children, who wrote a critique of the stories for favoring institutions over families.
"We are always pleased to see media attention on adoption for foster children who cannot return home," Kroll wrote in an opinion piece published by the Free Press. "When such attention also promotes childhood-long institutionalization, our pleasure quickly turns to pain."
An Early Look
Wexler was also critical of the Free Press for allowing Yablonky to review certain passages of the story before publication. Journalists rarely let the subjects of a story see a story in advance. Erb, the main reporter on the project, did not respond to email and telephone requests to comment. Kaufman, the Free Press videographer on the project, said he showed video to Yablonky to make sure no children were included for whom there was no approval. Yablonky said he didn't review the project for content, only to ensure that children's confidentiality was not violated.
Linda Spears, vice president for policy and public affairs at the Arlington, Va.-based Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), said she was not bothered by the collaboration between the newspaper and the agency. "Agencies that have something to hide don't let anyone in the door," she said.
Floyd Alwon, a senior director and expert on institutional care at the CWLA, said that while residential treatment centers are less than optimal, they are an important part of the "continuum" of options needed for children in foster care.
Said Yablonky, "There are some people in our field who don't believe in institutions. But the article was clear the boys had been in 15 and 20 foster care placements. ... We were the last resort."
Wexler's critique is at www.nccpr.org/reports/cchanalysis.pdf.
Kroll's critique is at www.freep.com/article/20081203/OPINION02/81203027.