In mid-2011, Ryan Gabrielson, public safety reporter at California Watch and the Center for Investigative Reporting, received a tip about a police force he’d never heard of: The Office of Protective Services.
The tipster indicated that some members of this state-run police force were abusing overtime. But before Gabrielson could make an effort to understand what portion of their work was legitimate, he needed to determine what exactly the police did.
He learned that this police force was specifically assigned to protect the approximately 1,600 California residents who lived in the state’s five board-and-care centers for the developmentally disabled. Gabrielson immediately noted a conflict-of-interest.
“Abuse is endemic to people with severe developmental disabilities who live in these residential centers. And it’s potentially perpetrated by their caretakers, the centers’ employees,” he said. “It seemed like an issue, for an internal police force to report to the agency whose employees they’re potentially investigating.”
Gabrielson began a dogged pursuit for records, data and more information. The result? “Broken Shield,” a hard-hitting investigation into the Office of Protective Services.
A year and a half into the series, Gabrielson and California Watch have found that the Office of Protective services failed to protect the state’s vulnerable board-and-care residents. Articles documented how unexplained injuries went uninvestigated and abuse and sexual assault cases went unprosecuted.
Getting records from the state to support these findings was a tough slog. A public health official pointed Gabrielson to the Health Facility Consumer Public Information System, a database of all incidents reported to long-term care facilities in California, but CIR had to sue California’s Department of Public Health to receive uncensored copies of reports of physical abuse and neglect.
“The public health department was sending back record requests with almost every word blacked out. And the developmental centers themselves were very slow to respond to records requests--or outright denied them,” said Gabrielson.
Additionally, the police force was forbidden to speak to reporters--Gabrielson in particular. “It took time to build sources, lots of door-knocking and phone calls,” he said.
Getting details on individual cases required turning to the families who had fought the system to find more information. “In one case, a retired San Diego police officer took on the investigation of his brother’s case because he believed the Office of Protected Services was bungling their investigation—or worse, that they were engaged in a cover up,” said Gabrielson.
One family’s story in particular grabbed Gabrielson. Smack in the middle of a stack of more than 2,000 pages of litigation papers: Jennifer’s story. The tale, which Gabrielson gleaned from court records and supplemented with family interviews, is horrific: A woman with severe intellectual disabilities accused a caregiver from a developmental center of molestation. Detectives from the Office of Protective Services opened an investigation but didn’t take additional action. A few months later, Jennifer was pregnant.
Gabrielson outlined Jennifer’s ordeal in “Police Ignore, Mishandled Sex Assaults Reported by the Disabled.” “In Jennifer’s Room,” a haunting video directed and produced by CIR multimedia producer Carrie Ching, appears with the article.
“In the print version of the story, there’s no cushion from the facts,” said Gabrielson. “The video was more of a narrative and it was more emotional. The story worked because we hit both parts,” he said.
Gabrielson was vigilant about protecting the identity of the family. “They still live in fear of the person who raped Jennifer and they’re very brave to even share their story. I agreed that we would make sure they couldn’t be located through the article.” So he opted to use solely Jennifer’s first name, but did not use the names of her family. “Like other news organizations, we do not disclose the names of victims of sex assault. And this whole family was a victim of sex assault,” he said.
Response to Jennifer’s story, and the series as a whole, has been tremendous. California Watch and CIR’s print partners circulated Jennifer’s story widely. “In Jennifer’s Room” was picked-up all over the web, posted to both Poynter and Jezebel.
In September 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown signed two bills on developmental center abuse. And in December 2012, California regulators moved to shut down the state’s largest board-and-care center.
There’s more work to do, although Gabrielson is tight-lipped about what’s next for the series. “There’s more reporting to be done, there’s always more reporting to be done—but I can’t talk about it,” he said.
And although Gabrielson was relentless in his pursuit of records and data, he reminds reporters that investigative work is about more than unearthing staggering statistics.
“The details are with the people. Data can only take you so far, you need people to tell a story.”