On February 16, 1993, in the Juvenile Court of Cook County, a frustrated judge pleaded for more information about the case before him. “Would somebody simply summarize what this case is about for me and give me an idea why you’re all agreeing to this before I approve it?” he said.

What everyone was agreeing about was Amanda Wallace, whose three-year-old son Joseph had been taken from her and placed in foster care.

Amanda’s lawyer wanted the family reunited. So did the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. So did the state’s attorney’s office, which prosecutes child abuse cases. And, perhaps most important, so did the office of public guardian Patrick Murphy, which represented Joseph.

So the judge agreed. Two months and three days later Joseph Wallace was dead, allegedly hanged by his mother.

“I have never read a more upsetting police report,” says Ann Marie Lipinski, the new managing editor of the Tribune.

It wasn’t long before shock turned to outrage. Soon the Tribune was riding a wave of indignation that would last for most of the year. In the 12 months following Joseph Wallace’s death, his name would appear in more than 100 Tribune news stories, columns, and editorials. The lead on one front-page story declared that Joseph was doomed by “a system of judges, lawyers, social workers, and doctors that all but conspired to kill him.”

The Wallace coverage brought enormous benefits to the Tribune, including a Pulitzer Prize for R. Bruce Dold’s editorials about the case. But some of the children the Tribune set out to help were not so lucky.

The Tribune’s crusade set off a foster care panic. In the 14 months after Joseph’s death Chicago’s foster care population soared by 30 percent–from 23,547 to 30,746–as thousands of children came pouring into a system that had no place to put them. All, inevitably, were subjected to emotional trauma. Some, inevitably, were subjected to physical and sexual abuse.

Benjamin Wolf, staff attorney for the Illinois branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, says the Tribune’s coverage of the Illinois child welfare system left that system “unquestionably worse” than it was. Furthermore, the coverage drew to Chicago extraordinary national media attention that spread the panic and put at risk the most promising innovation in child welfare in decades: family preservation.

By the summer of 1994, stories blasting family preservation had appeared on ABC, CBS, and NPR, and in USA Today and Newsweek. Almost all had a Chicago dateline. By the time Newt Gingrich launched the great orphanage debate a few months later, most reporters were interested in only two options: foster care and orphanages. Family preservation was a nonstarter.

All of this has been troubling to advocates like myself, who favor family preservation not because it is what most parents want but because it is what most children need.

I was a reporter 16 years, and I spent much of that time covering child welfare. The work led me to write the 1990 book Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse. I’m also vice president of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, a small all-volunteer advocacy group. Our goals include influencing media coverage of child welfare issues.

At the root of Chicago’s panic was fear. Telephone operators for the DCFS hot line were afraid to screen out even the most unlikely calls. Workers sent to investigate were afraid to leave almost any child at home. And judges were afraid to let any child in foster care return to a parent. All feared the Chicago media, especially the Tribune.

“Nobody wants to be on the front page of the newspaper,” says Bruce Boyer, supervising attorney for the Children and Family Justice Center of the Northwestern University law school. “Workers, judges, attorneys all are making decisions based on whether something will come back to haunt them personally and professionally. It doesn’t make sense in terms of what’s best for the child.”

Diane Redleaf, supervisory attorney for the Children’s Rights Project of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago, agrees. “Children don’t go home anymore in Cook County,” she says. (She is also a member of the advisory board of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.) “And everyone is treated like they’re Amanda Wallace.”

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. “Any mistakes that the Tribune made . . . came from the absolute best of intentions,” says a Tribune reporter who is anguished over the turn the coverage took–and spoke only on condition of anonymity. “It did not come from, “Well, we can really sell some newspapers.”‘

But faced with the horrible death of a small child, the Tribune learned all the wrong lessons–and prescribed the wrong remedy.

The Tribune concluded that Joseph Wallace died because “the law” favored the rights of parents over the safety of children. But no such law ever existed.

The Tribune concluded that an emphasis on “family preservation” was endangering children. But family preservation almost saved Joseph.

The Tribune left the impression that only the children of the brutally abusive or the hopelessly addicted are placed in foster care. And it left the impression that such placement ensures safety. Neither impression is correct.

“The media see the cases that are aberrational,” says Boyer. “Those are the cases that define the public understanding of the cases that go into the court system. They don’t reflect the bulk of those involved.”

By the time the Tribune reached an almost identical conclusion, it was too late.

The Tribune was not alone. The Sun-Times took an almost identical approach. But the Tribune is the only newspaper in Illinois with national impact. The Tribune is the one that won the Pulitzer. And it was the Tribune that, when the Wallace case broke, already had a vessel into which to pour its coverage.

Months before Joseph Wallace died, the Tribune decided that in 1993 the killing of any child would be front-page news, as part of the yearlong project “Killing Our Children.” In 1994 the newspaper ran a follow-up project, “Saving Our Children.”

By the Tribune’s count, “Killing Our Children” won ten major awards and was a finalist for a second Pulitzer. This brought massive national attention to the Tribune, including, Lipinski says, calls from “18 million reporters” asking about the project.

Eventually, the Tribune would turn almost 180 degrees, endorsing family preservation and lamenting a “lingering public misperception” of what family preservation was all about. But by then it was too late. The impressions shaped by the early Tribune coverage were locked in the public mind. The national news media hewed to the Tribune’s early line and ignored the subtleties of the later coverage.

Ann Marie Lipinski supervised the “Killing Our Children” series. As she sees it, if the Tribune hadn’t pledged to put the death of every child on page one, Joseph Wallace “would have died anonymously.” That is unlikely.

Herself a former foster child, Joseph’s mother Amanda Wallace had set herself on fire and tried to disembowel herself. She ate batteries and drank drain cleaner. She was, in the words of one report on the case, “a suicidal, antisocial pyromaniac.” (She recently was found unfit to stand trial.) Yet twice, judges had returned Joseph Wallace to his mother.

The Tribune wanted to know why. And the Tribune quickly came up with an answer: the law.

Responding to Joseph’s death, Bruce Dold wrote that “the most critical element” in a package of “reform” legislation was a bill to change “the law” to make “the best interests of the child” more important than family preservation.

Two days later, another editorial declared that “the law needs to be absolutely clear: The child’s rights and interests come before anything else, including the rights of parents.” The emphasis was the Tribune’s.

The crusade was not confined to the editorial page. “DCFS Asked: What About Kids’ Rights?” declared a story on April 25. “In Illinois, critics fed up with child abuse cases that end tragically said the system too long has bent over backward to coddle dangerous parents,” wrote reporter Rob Karwath.

“What made the child welfare system return Joseph, just as it has returned other DCFS wards who have ended up injured or dead? Why does the agency seem biased toward the rights of the birth parents over the best interests of the children?

“In part, the answer lies in what Illinois and federal laws have determined to be a priority in child abuse cases. For more than a decade, the law has said that courts should try to reunify families torn by abuse and neglect “whenever possible.”‘

Five days later, a front-page story headlined “A Call for Children’s Rights” claimed that “caseworkers and judges” explaining why Joseph was returned “cited a desire to reunite the family, in accordance with the state’s “family first’ policy.” This left the erroneous impression that the state program called Family First was legal policy somehow involved in Joseph’s death.

Another story declared that Joseph was returned to his mother “largely because of a state policy requiring families to be reunited whenever possible.” Putting “the best interests of the child” first is “at the heart of almost every proposed solution to the child welfare dilemma,” according to still another story.

The columnists weighed in. Bob Greene and Mike Royko wrote column after column from the same point of view. “DCFS has always been obsessed with the idea of reuniting families, even if the family environment was nothing more than a torture chamber,” Royko wrote.

Dold is quick to point out that he never editorialized against all family preservation programs, and he opposed legislation that would have made such programs virtually impossible to implement. But such subtle distinctions were overwhelmed by the overall tenor of the coverage.

“The whole issue of “Let’s just change the legislation’ was myopic,” says a Tribune reporter. “It came across as if [then] kids like Joseph wouldn’t be dying, and that’s just not true.”

Indeed, the “law” that the Tribune kept condemning was a figment of the newspaper’s imagination. Nowhere did state law express a preference for family preservation over child safety. State law only repeated language in federal law that requires “reasonable efforts” to keep families together–reasonable efforts, not ridiculous efforts. Illinois law also said that children should be returned to their parents “where appropriate.”

In all of the stories, columns, and editorials about “the law” only one story actually quoted from a statute, and that story quoted only two words: “whenever possible.”

Even on its face, it’s hard to see how this would force the return of Joseph Wallace to his mother. But the words actually can be found in a section of the Juvenile Court Act, which states: “The purpose of this Act is . . . to preserve and strengthen the minor’s family ties whenever possible, removing him or her from the custody of his or her parents only when his or her welfare or safety or the protection of the public cannot be adequately safeguarded without removal.” The emphasis is added.

The author of the story that quotes the words “whenever possible,” Rob Karwath, was also the reporter covering DCFS when the Wallace story broke. Karwath refused to be interviewed for this article.

But Tribune editors insist that, in Lipinski’s words, “the statutes in Illinois had a bias toward reunification of families.” Metropolitan editor Gerould Kern, who supervised the coverage in 1994, says the law “did place an emphasis on family reunification,” and the fact that the law was changed supports that contention. Kern could not say where this emphasis was, and acknowledged he had not read the law. Associate metro editor Mary Elson, who edited many of the Wallace stories, says, “The sense of [the law] was that the parents had the number-one rights. It was their child, and their right to get the child back was the number-one priority.” She added, “I don’t know that I myself have read the law. Certainly our reporters did.”

In Chicago in 1993, blaming the law–and family preservation–was particularly seductive for two reasons:

In other cities, family preservation was implemented with care and it worked. In Chicago, the rules for running a successful family preservation program–including rules covering training, goals, and caseload size–were ignored, and the Family First program, run by private agencies under contract with DCFS, was a failure.

The second reason was Patrick Murphy. Murphy’s office serves as “law guardian” for children allegedly abused and neglected. Murphy combines a flair for boiling issues down to memorable sound bites with a rare willingness to share information–with his own spin–about a system otherwise cloaked in secrecy. The first time a judge returned Joseph Wallace to his mother, in 1990, Murphy’s office had opposed the decision. But on the occasion that led to his death, Murphy’s office had supported the return.

After Joseph died, Murphy turned Amanda Wallace into the Willie Horton of family preservation, in the process diverting attention from the role his own office played in sending Joseph to his death.

The day after Joseph died, Murphy told the Tribune that “he personally handled Joseph’s case the first time it went to court.” The Tribune reported that Murphy “had pleaded with a judge to keep [Joseph and his brother] in a foster home.” The Tribune went on to quote Murphy directly: “This was my personal case,” Murphy said. “I can’t tell you how sick I am now.” And according to the Tribune, Murphy claimed to remember exactly what he said to the judge. “I remember telling [Judge Walter] Williams: “This is not family preservation. There is no family to preserve here.”‘ As for the final return, to which his office agreed, Murphy charged that a DCFS caseworker may have withheld crucial information and should face criminal prosecution. And of course he blamed “the law.”

Just nine days later, Murphy was the first to come out with a “report” on the Wallace death. He called a news conference and even brought Wallace’s one-year-old brother along as a prop. The picture of Murphy holding the baby would appear twice in the Tribune and be reprinted in Newsweek.

In his report, Murphy again claimed that he “attempted to convince Judge Williams to change his mind.”

Murphy used the occasion to slam DCFS, the judges, and especially family preservation. But he also did something brilliant: he took a smidgen of blame himself. Actually, blame may be too strong a word. Though the Tribune said Murphy “castigated himself,” he said only that the first time Joseph was returned to his mother–when his office objected–his office should have appealed the decision. And the second time–when his office agreed to the return–his office shouldn’t have trusted DCFS for information about the case.

But a little repentance went a long way. In an editorial, Dold declared that everyone else should follow Murphy’s enlightened example and engage in similar “critical self-analysis.”

“He was the only person to say he did something wrong from the first day,” says reporter Andrew Gottesman, a fact Gottesman would return to over and over in an interview.

But just as the Tribune campaigned against a law that did not exist, the Tribune made Patrick Murphy a hero for things he never really said.

On October 26, 1993, one day before its scheduled release, the Tribune obtained a copy of a report on the Wallace case commissioned by Harry Comerford, then chief judge of the Cook County Circuit Court. The report, written by three lawyers appointed by Comerford, concluded that “the Public Guardian’s office was Joseph’s last clear chance, and its neglect went far beyond the public apology offered by its chief.”

The report found that :

Though Murphy supposedly “castigated” himself for failing to appeal the first decision to return Joseph, the legal work of his office was so poor that a successful appeal would have been impossible.

Murphy’s office had all the information it needed to oppose the final return of Joseph Wallace without relying on DCFS.

Murphy’s office didn’t merely go along with returning Wallace to his mother; it persuaded the state’s attorney’s office to support the return.

Murphy replied, “I didn’t say it was my personal case. I said I was involved personally in the case.” He said he gave instructions to the lawyer handling the case and spoke directly to Joseph’s foster parents. “I was very intimately involved, much more so than in 99 percent of the cases.”

As for the legal work being too poor for an appeal, “That’s horseshit,” Murphy said. “The record was excellent.”

Murphy continues to maintain that DCFS didn’t give his office sufficient information about the case, but he acknowledged that his office knew enough anyway that it shouldn’t have recommended that Joseph be returned to his mother. “I said that long before [the Comerford Commission] did,” Murphy said, arguing that this was part of his early assumption of blame for his office’s failings.

But Murphy was forced to acknowledge the most devastating of the Comerford report’s conclusions: that the emotional personal plea he claimed to have made to Judge Williams never took place.

When confronted by the commission, Murphy wrote a letter in which he acknowledged, “It does appear I erred when I stated that “I attempted to convince Judge Williams to change his mind.”‘

And what about the Tribune’s designated villain, family preservation?

Although the Wallace case began in Chicago, for part of Joseph’s short life the family lived in Kane County. During that time the family was placed in Family First, the Illinois family preservation program. But when Amanda Wallace overdosed on a prescription drug, her children were removed.

In court, the Family First caseworker behaved as family preservation workers are supposed to. Because they spend so much time with their families, they often are in the best position to know when a family should not stay together. The Wallaces’ caseworker testified that Amanda Wallace was incapable of caring for her children, and the judge agreed. The children were not returned until after Amanda Wallace, and therefore her family’s case, moved back to Chicago and the caseworker’s information got lost.

Not only was family preservation not a factor in Joseph Wallace’s death, family preservation almost saved Joseph Wallace’s life.

“Ever since Joseph’s death, the term “family preservation’ has been stigmatized to mean leaving a child in a dangerous home,” the report to Comerford concluded. “After a review of the record, we believe that no judge or lawyer in this case agreed to return Joseph to his mother merely because of his or her desire to preserve families.”

In a front-page, eight-column story on October 27, the Tribune quoted the report’s conclusions about Murphy, but nothing else–not the specifics of Murphy’s alleged failings, not his misrepresentation of his own role in the case, not the actual role of Family First in the case, and not the report’s conclusions about family preservation. And none of this information has made it into the Tribune’s news columns since.

Instead, the October 27 story hinted that the Comerford report was a whitewash. Dold made this sentiment explicit in an editorial two days later.

Andrew Gottesman, who coauthored the story, said he didn’t mention the report’s findings about what had happened in Kane County–they consisted of three lines buried in the middle of an 80-page document–because he didn’t know about them. Indeed, he was still unaware of what had happened in Kane County until I interviewed him. As for the treatment of Murphy, “a lot of times in journalism, you can’t get into the specifics,” Gottesman said. “It was in no way an attempt to cover up for Murphy’s office or give him a pass.” As for Murphy’s misrepresenting his own role, Gottesman said that “whether Patrick Murphy misspoke is not important.”

The next day the Tribune gave Murphy eight paragraphs to condemn the report, which he labeled a “whitewash” and a “canard” concocted by “silk tie lawyers.”

The ACLU’s Benjamin Wolf has watched Murphy deal with the media for years. “It’s amazing what he gets away with,” Wolf says.

As important as what the Tribune said about the child welfare system was what it did not say. These sins of omission left two salient but false impressions in the minds of readers.

Tribune coverage left the impression that children were being removed from their homes only as a last resort and only in the most extreme cases of maltreatment–if then.

“The public has the idea that a substantial majority of the children are victims of serious physical abuse, that a great many of the parents are profoundly disturbed, and the notion that we can help these families is naive,” says Wolf. “All those things were true in the Wallace case, but they aren’t true in many, many other cases.”

If Wolf is describing a stereotype that most reporters and editors at the Tribune believed, it’s understandable. The child protective system is like the Loch Ness monster, only real. Almost everything about this monster is hidden by “confidentiality” laws that supposedly protect the privacy of children. In fact, they protect the system from scrutiny. But when a child “known to the system” dies, the death becomes a police matter and far more information becomes public. So it’s easy to get the impression that this one visible part of the monster is the entire beast.

In fact, the system errs in both directions, often tearing apart loving families because they are poor. A New Jersey study found that 25 percent of the foster children in Newark were in care because their families lacked decent housing. A Child Welfare League of America study of “lack of supervision” cases in New York City found that although the services needed most often were the obvious ones, day care and baby-sitting, the “help” offered most often was foster care.

And in Illinois, just three years before Joseph Wallace’s death, federal magistrate Joan Gottschall issued a ruling in a class-action lawsuit, Norman v. Ryder, brought by the Children’s Rights Project. At the same time that “the law” supposedly was forcing children into the arms of brutal parents, Gottschall found that DCFS routinely kept families apart because of poverty, particularly when they lacked decent housing, a practice she called “conscience shocking.”

The ruling led to a consent decree that called for the provision of special services such as emergency cash to keep poor families together, and the appointment of a monitor to be sure the terms of the decree were followed.

The first false impression invites the second: If children are removed only when absolutely necessary, foster care must be an improvement.

This fails to consider the emotional trauma of foster care. “We all have stereotypes about poor parents,” says Wolf. “So the story of a poor parent harming a child somehow invokes nods and expressions of “We know that’s how the world is’ from middle-class reporters and editors in a way that stories about the pain of foster care and the psychic agony of separation from everything you know and love and what that does to a child somehow don’t trigger.

“We don’t think of poor children as having the same hopes and dreams as our children–that they have friends, they have teachers, they have communities. Substitute care takes all of that out of their lives. The pain of that is something that the press just doesn’t seem to focus on.”

Or as Bruce Boyer of the Children and Family Justice Center puts it, “Child traumatized by separation trauma with mother’ is not a headline.”

A story conveying the emotional harm of foster care can be difficult to get. Former foster children who’ve been returned to their parents often can’t or won’t talk about their experiences. The parents, poor and inarticulate, often are passed over by reporters in favor of middle-class foster parents and attorneys from Murphy’s office, Wolf says.

As a result, the emotional damage done by separation tends to provoke, both in reporters and the general public, a “Yes, but . . . ” response. As in, “Yes, but at least they are safe.”

Not necessarily.

All over America children have been taken from perfectly safe homes only to be beaten, raped, or killed in foster care. Two studies, including one involving a program said to be a national model, found abuse in about one-quarter of all foster homes. Other studies have reached similarly alarming conclusions.

In Chicago, even Patrick Murphy alleged in a lawsuit that DCFS “continually placed children in living arrangements where they were sexually assaulted by other children.”

Wolf has spent a decade listening to foster children. He won an all-encompassing consent decree calling for reforms in every phase of the child protective process in Illinois. Wolf calls the Illinois foster care system “a laboratory experiment to produce the sexual abuse of children.

“It’s hard to imagine creating a system that could be more dangerous. Older children, some of them victims themselves, get little therapy and help [and are placed with] a lot of young, vulnerable kids. You put them in where they’re moved around a lot and have little supervision–the likelihood of the older kids attacking the younger is very high.

“I have interviewed a significant number of kids in the system. An incredibly high percentage have stories of that kind.”

Furthermore, Wolf says, DCFS doesn’t even keep track of the “known sexual attackers” as they are moved through the system. And Wolf believes many “accidental” deaths of foster children are really suicides.

The Tribune has reason to know about such problems. In 1989, Karwath wrote three stories about a private foster care agency accused by DCFS of failing to report problems including “attempted suicides by foster children, runaways and suspected abuse and neglect by foster parents.”

Wolf says he has tried to interest reporters in the issue of abuse in foster care, with no success. Indeed, the Tribune has gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid it.

Between 1989 and 1994, four “house parents” at an Elgin orphanage called Mooseheart were convicted of sexually abusing the children in their care. In the most recent case, a house parent was convicted of molesting six preteen boys in less than a year. When the Tribune finally put the story on the front page, the story displayed enormous sympathy–not for the child victims, but for the institution. Bob Greene declared that “a place devoted to doing good now faces the task of making itself better.”

Lipinski says abuse in foster care got relatively little attention in 1993 because there were no known deaths of foster children. “You’re asking me about a project on homicide,” Lipinski said. “There are any number of atrocities inflicted on children. . . . We chose the worst of the worst of atrocities.”

But in February 1994 the Tribune devoted intensive attention to the case of 19 children found living in squalor in a Chicago apartment. Atrocious as the “Keystone” conditions were, none of the 19 children was killed. None was raped. One was physically abused.

But it was not until February 19, 1995, after the mysterious death of three-month-old Tavaris Newsom in an overcrowded foster home, that the Tribune wrote its first story about abuse in foster care–and that story minimized the problem. Nine days later, the Tribune mentioned that five Illinois children had been killed in foster care in 1994, a record. That information appeared in the eighth paragraph of a story of another foster care death, that of two-year-old Coreese Goldman.

In spite of the Tribune’s skepticism about the Comerford Commission report, and in spite of the fact that much of its most important information never reached Tribune readers, the report had a dramatic, if indirect impact. It helped prompt reporter Andrew Gottesman to go to juvenile court and see for himself.

After Gottesman’s outstanding two-part series appeared in December 1993, everything changed at the Tribune.

Gottesman wrote:

“While extreme cases like Joseph’s receive the bulk of media attention, the great majority are far less clear-cut. Many, experts say, could be resolved quickly if social services were available for parents who aren’t directly harming their children but who don’t have the means to care for them properly.”

Recommended solutions included “placing a premium on family preservation.”

There was more: “Many experts believe that Cook County judges and attorneys are too quick to remove children, largely as a result of Joseph’s death.” Rather than the problem being law that forces the return of children to unsafe homes, Gottesman concluded it’s the fact that even the “reasonable efforts” requirement is “widely ignored here.”

By the time Tribune reporters Rob Karwath, Louise Kiernan, and John W. Fountain concluded a six-part series on DCFS in March 1994, the turnaround was almost complete.

First on the Tribune’s list of solutions: “Keep children safely at home while families get help.”

For the first time, the Tribune drew a distinction between Illinois’ Family First program and real family preservation:

“Family preservation . . . hasn’t always been done the right way or with the right families in Illinois. Still, it can work, and it’s often the best answer for children, who can otherwise end up in a bureaucracy more harmful than their homes . . .

“Family First’s weaknesses, though, led some to dismiss all family preservation efforts as ineffective or even dangerous.”

The Tribune went on to praise the child welfare system in Alabama, where a lawsuit led to an innovative consent decree. The Tribune reported that Alabama’s foster care population declined by 18 percent in two years “largely because of an increased emphasis on family preservation.”

Finally the Tribune lamented the fact that family preservation efforts may be hampered by federal financial incentives that favor foster care and by a “lingering public misperception.” The Tribune did not say where this misperception came from.

These two series were extraordinary in one other respect. They broke through the insularity that had characterized the Tribune’s coverage until then. Until Gottesman looked at juvenile justice systems in Cincinnati and Louisville–eight months after Joseph Wallace died–no Tribune story compared Chicago to anyplace else. So no reporter ever was exposed to the many successful family preservation efforts in other states.

(Similarly, even as private agencies make a highly publicized effort to take over the entire child welfare system in Illinois, I could find no stories in the Tribune–or Sun-Times–examining New York City, where just such a system has been in effect for decades with disastrous results.)

“I do believe the Tribune’s coverage [has become] more thoughtful and more balanced,” says Wolf. But he says the later coverage has had far less impact than what went before.

The Tribune’s great turnaround came too late. By the time reporters and editors had second thoughts, their crusade already had “succeeded” and thousands of children were paying the price.

The law was changed. Murphy and Governor Edgar competed over who could shove the words “best interests of the minor” into state law in more places. Ultimately, the phrase was added at least 30 times.

Six caseworkers were fired and four judges were transferred. A new supervising judge, William Maddux, was named for abuse and neglect cases. He’d spent his teenage years in Boys Town. “I wasn’t raised in a family after the age of 12,” Maddux told Newsweek. “I didn’t miss it.”

The result was fear at every level. “You’re saying, “I’m not going to get fired,”‘ said a DCFS hot line worker. “I’m taking down every damn thing that comes in.”‘ The investigators who decide whether or not to remove children from their homes were doing the same, according to Steve Trossman, a spokesman for their union. “No one’s ever going to be pilloried in the newspaper for taking a child away from a home,” Trossman said.

According to the Comerford Commission, judges reacted the same way. “Judges are fearful that they will be unfairly tried in the press if a child they return home subsequently dies,” the report states. “Children who should have gone home remain in limbo in foster care. Joseph’s death has resulted in the unnecessary separation of children from their families.”

Like the specific allegations against Patrick Murphy and the vindication of family preservation, this part of the Comerford report also didn’t make it into the news columns of the Tribune.

In the first full fiscal year after Joseph Wallace’s death, DCFS threw 8,737 Illinois children into foster care–a one-year record, bringing the total to more than 41,000, another record. “You can draw a direct line from the media coverage to an increase in intake,” says Boyer.

At the same time, only 1,300 children were released from DCFS custody in all of Illinois, and although 74 percent of Illinois’ foster children are from Cook County, only one-third of the children returned to their homes were from Cook County. In other words, two-thirds of the children allowed out of foster care in the wake of Joseph’s death lived in parts of Illinois where the Chicago Tribune has less influence.

Children came pouring into Chicago’s only emergency shelter for children taken away from their parents. When the shelter filled, children slept in DCFS offices in the same building at 810 W. Montrose. Then DCFS got those offices declared a shelter. Then the offices filled and children overflowed into a nearby conference room. Then children were sent all over the state to any place that had a bed, sometimes hundreds of miles from parents desperate to visit them.

There was not enough food at the shelter. There was no decent place to bathe. Cribs for the infants reeked of urine. One day an 11-year-old boy got hold of a gun–nobody is sure how–and fired it.

Conditions were so bad that the Tribune had to take a firsthand look.

“A surly teenager with a bad attitude struts and shouts swear words a few yards away from the abused and neglected little ones, so young they can barely tell you their names,” wrote reporter Ellen Warren. “Sixteen-year-old Harry is boasting: “I stole 50 cars this week!’ A few yards away is 5-year-old Michael, so very scared and trying with all his might not to cry. “I’m the big brother,’ Michael explains, gently stroking the hair of Christopher, 4, who gulps heavy, sleepy breaths and sucks his thumb on a cot in a corner. . . . “I want my mom,’ Michael said. . . . “When a visitor tried to shake the little boy’s hand, he threw his arms around her, starving for a hug.”

But unlike the crusade to change state law, the story of the shelter was a passing fancy at the Tribune, ensuring that it would have no impact. Aside from Warren’s feature, coverage was dry, dispassionate, and incremental. As with much of the Tribune’s reporting about the child welfare system and “children’s rights,” none of the other stories about the shelter quoted a child.

Just how little impact Warren’s story had can be gauged by an editorial Dold wrote just one week after it appeared. “Compared to some of the deep-seated problems of DCFS–problems that lead to children wallowing in substitute care for years or place them in physical peril,” Dold wrote, “harboring children in the emergency services center is a relatively modest problem.”

Asked what their efforts actually did for children, reporters and editors at the Tribune cite things like increased public awareness, the opening of a new juvenile court building, the hiring of new judges, and, of course, the change in the law. But while they’re convinced their work will produce long-term benefits, none could cite any accomplishment that left the children of Chicago better off than they’d been before.

If anything, the Tribune’s efforts undermined the accomplishments of others. In 1991 the Illinois ACLU had negotiated a consent decree that called for reforming every aspect of DCFS operations. The impact of the foster care panic on implementation of the decree was “devastating,” said Benjamin Wolf. The decree called for hiring hundreds of new caseworkers to bring caseloads down to a manageable size, Wolf said. But now the new workers are overwhelmed with new cases. “The caseload just keeps growing and the paralysis of the system overwhelms the resources.”

The 1990 consent decree that resulted from the Norman decision also was undercut. The rate at which impoverished families were certified for assistance decreased sharply, especially in Chicago, and resources available to keep families together went unused. The court-appointed monitor wrote that “extensive media coverage” had contributed to “an apparent “community attitude’ toward removal of children from their homes with little attention to the trauma experienced as a result of separation. . . . The shockingly low percentage of children going home in Cook County is alarming.”

And what about the problem the Tribune set out to solve: children brutally abused even after their plight was “known to the system”? There were at least three such incidents between June and October 1994 and at least two more this year. That too is unsurprising. By the summer of 1994 a backlog of 5,200 uncompleted investigations had overwhelmed DCFS. By the end of 1994 there were still more than 3,300 such cases in the system.

The needless removal of children from their homes has “swamped the court system,” says Boyer. “When they have that many cases, nobody has the means to distinguish between [people like] Amanda Wallace or poor single parents who just don’t have any money.”

In addition, the national media have perpetuated the very myths that later Tribune coverage has tried to dispel, endangering successful family preservation programs outside Illinois.

Of all the national stories to appear last year, the one on ABC’s Turning Point April 13 owed the most explicit debt to the Tribune. Indeed, the subject of the program was the Tribune and its “front page crusade.”

In a segment devoted to the Wallace case, Turning Point reported that Joseph was returned to his mother because “family reunification was the absolute priority.” The segment concluded with anchor Diane Sawyer declaring that Wallace’s death “leaves a legacy. In the state of Illinois, the law now reads that the welfare of the child comes first.”

How did Turning Point know that family preservation was to blame for Joseph’s death? “Debriefings with an awful lot of caseworkers who worked on the case,” said producer Howie Masters. “Many talked to us off the record . . . particularly DCFS individuals.”

Asked if these individuals might have a vested interest in blaming a law or policy rather than themselves, Masters replied: “Maybe. But you’d have to ask them.”

Masters said the segment was “using individuals close to the story. We didn’t reach to advocates or experts in any great detail.” Though Masters said Benjamin Wolf’s name was on a “contact list” for the program, he didn’t know if Wolf was ever contacted. Wolf said he was not. Diane Redleaf and Bruce Boyer didn’t even make the contact list.

But Patrick Murphy made it onto the air.

Five days after Turning Point it was Newsweek’s turn. The story, headlined “Why Leave Children With Bad Parents?” originated with a proposal from John McCormick, the magazine’s Chicago bureau chief, and it relied exclusively for its horror stories on Chicago cases.

Newsweek quoted from the Comerford Commission report, but ignored all its conclusions about Murphy–and the brief portion of the report noting how family preservation almost saved Joseph Wallace.

While McCormick supplied the horror stories, reporter Michele Ingrassia in New York was in charge of context. This consisted of broadbrush statements such as the claim that because of “a national policy to keep families together at almost any cost . . . even in the worst cases, states regularly opt for reunification” and “even in the most egregious instances of abuse, children go back to their parents time and again.” Like the Tribune, Newsweek blamed this on “the law”–in this case federal law requiring “reasonable efforts” to keep families together.

No data were offered to support these claims. Ingrassia said she accepted them as fact because “it’s the answer everybody kept giving me. . . . It’s what we keep hearing day in and day out from everyone we talk to.”

In fact, everybody didn’t say it. McCormick acknowledged that he interviewed Diane Redleaf at length for the story. She got one sentence in an otherwise glowing sidebar about Patrick Murphy.

Ingrassia said her story was not about family preservation. “The question we were posing was not “Is family preservation good or bad?’ . . . We were posing a very narrow question: “Why, in cases that seem so bad, are we not taking kids away?”‘

Nevertheless, the story devoted half a page of text to slamming family preservation, beginning with a horror story from Chicago. This section was headed “Band-Aids Don’t Work” and it lamented the fact that “family preservation programs have become so entrenched there’s little chance they’ll be junked.”

Elsewhere in the story, Ingrassia wrote that “there is mounting evidence that such efforts [to keep families together] make little difference–and may make things worse.”

What is the mounting evidence? “Whatever reports we used,” Ingrassia said. But she could name only one: an evaluation of the flawed Illinois program.

Ingrassia did have data of sorts for the claim that “as family preservation programs took off, the threat of severing the rights of abusive parents all but disappeared.” But her flimsy evidence was culled from an American Public Welfare Association report that merely showed a decline in finalized adoptions between 1982 and 1990. There were problems with using its statistics:

Although finalized adoptions went down during this period, the number of cases in which children were legally freed for adoption–the part of the process most likely to be affected by a change in the law–went up, though not as fast as the increase in the foster care population.

Through most of the period covered by the APWA report, family preservation was almost nonexistent aside from pilot programs. It did not start to take off until about 1989.

Consider Michigan. Since that state began what is now the nation’s largest family preservation program, adoptions of foster children have increased by 87 percent, from 839 in 1988 to 1,573 in 1994. In other words, as family preservation “took off,” so did adoption.

Ingrassia refused a request for a follow-up interview, so it is not known if she asked the author of the APWA report she cited, Toshio Tatara, if he thinks the law caused the decline in adoptions.

He doesn’t.

At USA Today, reporter Patricia Edmonds produced an April 7, 1994, story headlined “Young and in Danger: Why Kids Get Sent Back to Abusive Homes.” Edmonds, who quoted Patrick Murphy, acknowledges that she did not contact Boyer, Redleaf, Wolf, or anyone else in Chicago who disagrees with him. In fact, in Edmonds’s story, as in Newsweek’s, no advocate of family preservation from anywhere in America appeared at all.

Edmonds’s story cited a National Research Council review of “some intervention programs” that found only “equivocal evidence” that they work. But USA Today’s “equivocal evidence” had even less relevance than Newsweek’s “mounting evidence” because “intervention programs” can take a variety of forms and family preservation programs were rare in 1987. Asked about more recent data showing success in Michigan and Alabama, Edmonds replied, “You’re probably talking about material I’m not aware of. . . . I used what I believed to be the best stuff and I made a very conscientious search for it.”

The heart of the USA Today story is the observation that “In March’s last five days, headlines yielded these horrors,” followed by cases of children returned to parents who beat them to death or close to death. But during those same five days, other headlines introduced stories about Jerrell Hardiman of La Porte, Indiana, and Tajuana Davidson and China Marie Davis of Phoenix. The three children had this in common: They died after being removed from their homes.

In the ten months that China Marie Davis lived in foster care she endured the following injuries, many of which were never treated: two broken collarbones, a broken left arm, a broken right rib, two fractures of the left upper arm, a fracture of the right upper arm, a broken left hand, a broken left wrist, a broken left forearm, a broken right wrist, a broken right forearm, fractures of both thigh bones, and a compression fracture of the spine.

But Edmonds’s story effectively wrote off children like China Marie Davis in a single sentence: “Foster parents abuse much less often than parents reabuse, studies show.” And by using the words “foster parents” Edmonds didn’t reach the issue of foster children abusing each other.

One national story stands out. On February 27, 1994, two months before the pile-on began, the Washington Post took a careful, detailed look at family preservation.

Unlike the authors of the other national stories, reporter Barbara Vobejda was careful to draw distinctions.

“Within the [family preservation] movement officials are concerned that state and local agencies may pour . . . funding into second-rate programs where higher caseloads and inadequate training could lead to the problems that have surfaced in Illinois,” Vobejda wrote. She explained why the Illinois program often failed, and compared it to Michigan’s. Even within Illinois, Vobejda contrasted Patrick Murphy’s view of family preservation as a failure to a case history of success.

“I wrestled with [the] story a lot, because it’s clear it would have been a lot sexier story if it blasted family preservation programs,” Vobejda said. “All you need to do is cite one horrible death and you’ve got a great lead.

“We all know how to write that kind of story. You knock somebody over the head with something pretty gruesome and say this is horrible . . . and it proves family preservation is a bad program and how can these social workers leave children with bad mothers?”

But, she says, such a story would have been unfair. “I wasn’t convinced that’s what was happening. . . . I was not convinced by all the criticism that this was a horrible program . . . nor was I convinced by all the supporters that this was a panacea.”

So Vobejda wrote a story filled with complexity and ambiguity. She wonders if that’s part of the reason it didn’t make page one.

That the Tribune knows its crusade failed was tacitly acknowledged by the failure to do the traditional “one year later” story pegged to its biggest accomplishment: the change in the law. “They are utterly resistant to reexamining it,” says Benjamin Wolf. “I said: “OK, it’s a year later. You guys said it would help: See if it did.”‘

What went wrong?

Wolf cites an analogy drawn by a colleague: The Tribune and the rest of the Chicago media saw the system as analogous to a cliff. To one side was the safe, solid ground of foster care. On the other side was the precipice: returning a child to or leaving a child with his or her parents.

The Tribune viewed the system that way because the only harm readily visible was the harm done by too little intervention. Since that was all the Tribune saw, reporters and editors began looking for an explanation for what otherwise seemed the inexplicable return of Joseph Wallace to his mother. They concluded there had to be some sort of law prompting “lots of smart people,” as Lipinski put it, to do stupid things.

But the child protective system is not a cliff, Wolf says. It’s a tightrope. One can “fall off” in either direction: by leaving a child in a dangerous home or by removing a child from one that is safe and loving.

“This is a system that makes a lot of bad decisions,” says Wolf. “It makes bad decisions to keep [children] from home. It makes bad decisions to send them home. It makes bad decisions to remove them and bad decisions not to remove them. . . . To focus on only one kind of bad decision–which is not the most common–and elevate that as an illustration of everything that’s wrong is counterproductive.”

Indeed, says Bruce Boyer, the Wallace case “was an aberration because he was being sent home in a culture where the vast number of mistakes [involve] children not being sent home when they should be.”

Had the Tribune done the reporting needed to identify the errors in both directions, the Tribune might have been willing to entertain more complex explanations for Joseph’s death and other cases like it.

At the time the Wallace case was decided, the caseload for Cook County Juvenile Court judges was 11 times the national average. After the Wallace death, more judges were assigned to abuse and neglect cases–and the Tribune claims credit for that. But Boyer says that because of the foster care panic, the caseload is now close to where it was before.

“They work in an impossible environment,” Boyer says. “There are too many cases. They don’t have the staff to determine the hard cases from the easy ones. They don’t have computer systems for a shorthand way to look at it. They can’t possibly be expected to remember from hearing to hearing the specifics of each case.”

Compounding the problem in the Wallace case was the fact that all of the lawyers at the hearing at which Joseph was returned to his mother for the last time were new to the case except one: the lawyer representing Amanda Wallace. And no one told the judge that there was anything unusual about the case.

“He had a thick stack of papers and 50 cases on either side of it,” said Boyer. “He had no reason to think this case was any different, absent being told.” To pull this case from among all the others “and focus on the right set of issues would have been an impossibility.”

But what about the caseworkers and mental health professionals involved in the case? Some strongly opposed reuniting Amanda Wallace with her son, but others wrote glowing testimonials about her fitness as a mother. What, other than a law requiring family preservation, could explain that?

It can be explained in part by the fact that some professionals knew of Amanda Wallace’s background while others knew only the woman standing before them. And that woman knew how to put on a great act.

“After a life of institutionalization, Amanda Wallace was system-wise and highly manipulative,” according to the Comerford Commission report. “She was able to seduce to her position a number of her therapists and caseworkers.” Or as one of Joseph’s foster parents told the Tribune, “She played the system like a Stradivarius violin.”

Amanda Wallace did things child protective workers and therapists love to see: She sought out “counseling,” kept her apartment clean, and, most important of all, knew how to act repentant.

To an enormous extent, what happens to a family caught in the child protection system depends on whether a parent passes or flunks what one lawyer has called “the attitude test.”

“That’s one of the real Catch-22s a lot of families face,” says Boyer. “People who haven’t done anything wrong and [therefore] show no repentance are judged unnecessarily harshly. On the other side, people like Amanda Wallace [who seem] repentant get more credit than she should get.”

“I’ve had clients who never hurt their children who can’t get them back because they don’t acknowledge that the system was right or they need help,” says Diane Redleaf. “The caseworkers very often make judgments based on who’s cooperating with them. If you cooperate with them, then you’re a good parent.”

“One of the things we have to break through is the notion that parents who are difficult for caseworkers are worse parents and those who are contrite are better,” says Benjamin Wolf. “A parent who really wants her child and becomes obnoxious about that may well be a better parent . . . and that’s the one that doesn’t get her kid back.”

“I would like to say that I know I have been bad in the past,” Amanda Wallace said at one hearing. “My future to me is my child. I want for my child to have something I didn’t have as a child. I want to give him my love, my affection.”

It’s an approach that doesn’t just work on caseworkers. Every Tribune reporter or editor asked about the paper’s lenient treatment of Patrick Murphy mentioned Murphy’s repentance.

Of all the Tribune reporters and editors willing to speak on the record, only one, associate metro editor Mary Elson, would entertain the possibility that the paper’s coverage of the Wallace case and its aftermath might not have been 100 percent beneficial.

Asked if Wolf was right when he said the Tribune’s efforts left the system “unquestionably worse,” Elson said, “That’s truly a tough call. It’s always better if people are aware and willing to try to rescue a child they think is being abused, but it’s unquestionably a bad thing that the state system is grossly overloaded and really unable to cope with the volume of cases it’s getting.”

But, Elson said, that doesn’t mean the coverage caused the foster care panic. “It’s a futile or a somewhat unfair line of argument to blame the Tribune for whatever may have happened in the state [child] welfare system.” Like her colleagues, Elson says that even with hindsight, the Tribune should have done nothing differently.

“I have no problems with the impact of the series and what good it did,” says Ann Marie Lipinski. “We made a phenomenal contribution to the state and nationally.”

“I think the Chicago Tribune did an extraordinary job of examining one of the most important public health and welfare issues of the day and served the city and the country in putting this under a microscope,” said Gerould Kern. “I don’t think I need to defend what we did any further than that.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/Troy Thomas; photo/Jon Randolph.