Wexler’s Unorthodox Style Worth Studying

The National Coalition for Child Protection Reform (NCCPR) was borne of a 1991 meeting in Cambridge, Mass., in which its founders decided it was necessary to create a single entity that would identify and challenge media coverage and what NCCPR Board President Martin Guggenheim described as a “powerful desire to blame the worst things that happen to children on their parents.”

Eight years after that founding meeting, the board was financially able to hire an executive director to lead NCCPR. It tapped Richard Wexler, a journalist of 19 years who had in 1991 published a book challenging the growing role of child removal and foster care in the public response to domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, and maltreatment.

In “Wounded Innocents,” Wexler sardonically used the term “child savers” to describe the array of professionals who believed the removing a child from a potentially dangerous family situation was favorable to improving the potentially dangerous family situation.

The book’s sarcastic tone and digestible presentation of facts and research were a preview of things to come in the 13-years Wexler spent at NCCPR, which ended last week when Wexler left the organization he has led since 1999 to lead communications for a watchdog group on ethics in politics.

Just as it did in its early years, NCCPR will exist but without enough cash to pay for Wexler.

“The decision to suspend operations really was made for us,” Wexler wrote in an e-mail exchange this week. “There wasn’t enough money to continue and no prospect that this would change for the foreseeable future.”

Some in child welfare will mourn the loss of Wexler’s voice. Plenty of others, “consistent targets of his writing, really are celebrating,” Guggenheim said. “They’re not going to continue to be attacked.”

I’ve covered child welfare services and policy for about 10 years, first for Youth Today and now for The Chronicle for Social Change, a new publication we are launching here at Fostering Media Connections. Here are a few things that stood out about the way Wexler and NCCPR did business:

National interjection into local situations. NCCPR is based just outside the Washington city limits, where many youth advocacy organizations focus on tying local examples to a national entreaty for reform and investment in youth services. Wexler weighed in from time to time on federal issues, but more often focused on taking the aggregation of national information and using it to influence local matters.

Mike Arsham, executive director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project, once said of Wexler: “Pick up a newspaper anywhere from Sacramento, to Duluth, to Providence, if it contains a story about child welfare, that story is likely to quote Richard. From a funder’s perspective, he is the living definition of ‘bang for the buck.’”

Diplomacy before war. A child fatality, and the subsequent coverage of it, can carry significant implications for local child welfare policy. When the child is living with a parent who has had some history with child protective services, Wexler argued that there was a heightened potential for caseworkers to remove children from parents simply to err on the side of caution, lest they be the next worker in the crosshairs for returning a child to a parent that kills him.

Wexler has skewered many a reporter and paper for helping to fuel a foster care panic, but Guggenheim says his superior skill was the ability to prevent such coverage with phone calls to editors.

“When a child situation came up, Richard was the first one there to make sure system didn’t overreact and remove children from their homes just to make up for it,” Guggenheim said. “He sat down with editorial writers and got them not to say what they used to say before NCCPR. It was the stories never written, headlines never issued, that made NCCPR so amazing.”

Use of the comment-o-sphere. Many online news outlets offer the opportunity for readers to chime in with their thoughts on a story; in stories about juvenile justice and child welfare, the space is often reduced to vitriolic arguments about race or the safety net. Wexler is the only national advocate who regularly used this space to make arguments, and he always signed the comments with his name and contact info for NCCPR.

Without being sure of the exact impact such comments had, I can say two things for sure: it is an absolutely free way to communicate thought on the pages of major papers, and reporters and editors absolutely track the comments pages.

Thinking like a journalist. I can’t remember ever waiting more than a few hours for a response from Wexler, and whenever he promised to supply research or examples of news coverage to support his position, that was in my inbox within a few hours as well. Keep in mind, this is a guy who carried on NCCPR’s work with almost no administrative assistance.

There were plenty of times I disagreed with Wexler’s point of view on issues, or the spirit of columns he wrote. But I always wanted to know his opinion, not because it would come with a colorful quote (though that helped), but because he’d be prepared to back it with data and thoughtful argument.

The extent to which NCCPR’s views (as advanced by Wexler) were right or wrong is not the point of this column. Personally, I think the need for vigilant defense of family preservation services is a crucial part of the advocacy quilt. I also think Wexler is poignant and smart enough that he could achieved his goals without some of the incendiary bomb-throwing he did in some blogs and columns. Both the board and Wexler recognize that his methods and his words made it too uncomfortable for many a would-be funder.

This column is simply to recognize a distinct brand of advocacy that yielded a lot of bang for the buck, until those bucks ran out. The number of children entering foster care when Wexler and NCCPR really began in 1999 was 550,000; the total was 408,000 last year.

“It would be ludicrous to say that NCCPR was solely responsible for that,” Wexler said, but “it would be equally ludicrous to say that NCCPR did not play a role in it far disproportionate to our size.”

John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle for Social Change, FMC’s upcoming web publication for youth work and policy professionals. Check here for news from the Chronicle staff and updates on our future web presence.

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.