Why “A Culture of Fear” was 1 Story Worth Telling


Back in 2002, The New York Times came out with a survey that said 81% of people feel they have a book in them. The article’s author, Joseph Epstein, tried hard to discourage people from writing those books, and one reason he gave was that “so many third-rate books are published nowadays.”

Epstein was right about the quantity, but he failed to mention two things: that a book ghostwritten by a professional increases the quality, and that some books contain ideas, stories, thoughts, and concepts that really deserve to be told.

As a ghostwriter, I’ve been lucky enough to come across many, and I will be sharing some I believe deserve to leave the author’s head and find their way to the page.

First, a reminder of what makes a story compelling: It has a powerful and irresistible effect; or earns admiration, attention, or respect. It’s also often unique, original, and different.

I remember being contacted by a licensed marriage and family therapist named Jerry Dominguez who worked for the Los Angeles County Department of Children & Family Services. He had a manuscript that he and his co-author, Melinda Murphy, felt needed a professional’s touch. Little did I know what I was in for.

I don’t mean the manuscript was poorly written; in fact, it was quite good. It was the content that shocked me. The entire 155 pages was an incendiary look at the problems that children social workers (CSWs) endured working there. Many staff members seemed more interested in holding onto their jobs than actually doing right by the children and families.

The book described various episodes of corruption, mismanagement, coercion, bullying, and intimidation, including:

  • A racist grandmother fabricated stories that her grandchildren had been sexually abused by their mother to ensure their mother didn’t gain custody. Despite those claims being proven untrue, the grandmother gained custody and kidnapped the kids out of the country.
  • The social workers are supposed to act in the best interests of the children and families, but an internal survey revealed workers felt like they were there “to make my boss look good” and “to do what I’m told regardless so I can keep my job”. One low-level supervisor summed it up this way: FUCMA, Fuck You and Cover My Ass. Examples include writing court reports, recommendations, and evaluations that contradict their own observations. They do this for fear of being labeled “insubordinate.”
  • A mother who couldn’t work at her parenting or counseling programs but loved her son was denied reunification. The foster parents wanted a closed adoption that would deny the mother visitation. The case worker was told to testify for the foster parents because “DCFS speaks with one voice,” even though the case worker believed this was false.

And so on.

What made this book worth writing goes back to my journalism days. It’s many a reporter’s dream to write about something that causes widespread change. and the only way to change anything is to bring stories and horrible facts like these and to light. The end result was “A Culture of Fear: An Inside Look at Los Angeles County’s Department of Children & Family Services,” which was published in 2014.

The authors were so impressed with my work that on the cover they added, “Edited by Lee Barnathan.” That was not included in our contract, and I was floored, flattered, and grateful.

I don’t honestly know what changes came about as a result of the book, but I’m guessing not enough because the documentary “Failure to Protect,” in which Melinda is listed in the cast as a social work investigator, was released in October. She told me,  “I’m in it throughout.  And I have the last line!” 

It’s too bad that Jerry wasn’t around to see it. He died of a heart attack in 2017.

Regardless, I was thrilled to be involved in getting this expository essay out of the head and onto the page.

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