From “Caught in the Crossfire,” Barbara Davidson’s heart-rending photos in the Los Angeles Times of those touched by gangland shootings; to the inevitable consequences of a nation rocked by recession in “Invisible Families” by The Seattle Times; to the exacting reporting and eye-opening findings of Patricia Wen’s “The Other Welfare” for The Boston Globe, the winners make the unseen visible, motivate action and uphold the high standards the Casey Medals set for exemplary journalism on the dilemmas of children and families.
This highly readable and thoroughly reported series deftly exposes waste, mismanagement and abuse within a $10 billion federal program. The reporter found faces and figures to support anecdotal claims that the Supplemental Security Income program had, as she writes, “gone seriously astray, becoming an alternative welfare system with troubling built-in incentives that risk harm to children.” Dogged reporting reveals that parents are willing to label their children “disabled,” despite its limiting nature, as long as the diagnosis came with a paycheck; that SSI workers blindly pay benefits years after a childhood diagnosis; and teens are motivated to continue the cycle because their families can’t afford to lose the benefit. Her reporting led to an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
This team’s curiosity, tenacity and concern for the welfare of children led to state action to strengthen investigations into the death of children. Journalists at The Observer built their own database by compiling records that cost the newspaper thousands of dollars. Based on their findings, reporters were then left with the grim and unenviable task of interviewing parents who had lost children -- and pressing them for details about what exactly happened to cause the child’s death. The powerful series led to changes in state government and prompted parents to rethink how to best keep their infants safe. The human drama makes the series hard to put down. The quality and utility of the information on safe sleeping makes it a potential lifesaver.
Child prostitution is a very real, urban issue that most overlook because they can, but McKim takes the time to see it, understand it and reveal its underbelly. She studied court records, talked with federal and local law enforcement and gained the trust of “Jessica,” a young woman who took on her seeming protectors-turned-tormentors in court. Jessica’s story could have been one of victimization, but in the reporter’s hands, it becomes one of realistic triumph and taking back control. McKim’s eye-opening story is an unsentimental cautionary tale for would-be runaways and, at the same time, a hopeful story for those already on the streets.
A tip led reporter Michael LaForgia to a far bigger story -- about systemic failures in Florida to protect children who attend summer camps. During months of reporting, he discovered that anyone -- even a convicted child molester -- could run a summer camp in the state of Florida. And they were. After building his own database of cobbled-together records, LaForgia found a camp operator who had been convicted of molesting a 6-year-old girl. He also found a con man and a crack dealer among those trusted to watch over children. His work led lawmakers to close the loophole that enabled these people to operate camps.
What distinguishes this story of recovery is the merciful lack of a tidy ending. Joan Garrett’s intimate portrait of an addict struggling to reclaim some of the life she discarded doesn’t flinch from the pain of her subject or the obstacles she still faces, and it leaves the last word to the person most affected – the subject’s young son.
James Warren masterfully flexes his journalistic muscles, old-school style, in his Chicago News Cooperative columns on the effects of the recession on families. His work is heavily reported, sprinkling in quotes and first-person observation with the depressing facts of economic hardship. While his columns don’t result in tidy solutions — even the most well-meaning policymaker is not going to immediately end the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression — readers come away better informed about the real-life struggles taking place every day on the social services front.
The series explores the challenges of interstate child protection cases through the lens of one person’s difficult, but ultimately successful, quest to get his daughter back home. Bailey takes a careful, respectful approach to Johnny Smith’s family in a challenging atmosphere, yet doesn’t downplay the criticisms of Smith’s home by New York child protective officials. He charts this case every step of the way, leaving no question unasked – or unanswered. In the wake of Bailey’s series, Johnny Smith was granted custody of his daughter, and in late May, Bailey wrote in a follow-up column that the South Carolina Department of Social Services has revamped how it will handle the federal law in the future.
This important story is the result of unusual initiative, determination and bravery on the part of a journalist. Most Americans probably don’t know that their government deports tens of thousands of unaccompanied Mexican children each year, and even fewer know what happens when those children reach Mexico. The Texas Observer traces the path of deported children to dangerous Mexican border cities, finding that many of them end up in the streets. Others try to reunite with their parents by attempting the hazardous and illegal border crossing, and some are even kidnapped and held for ransom. By taking readers on the hunt through first-person accounts of what she sees and hears, the writer enables us to feel the atmosphere of fear, incompetence, desperation and duplicity.
This report provides exceptional insight into the cloistered world of the Roman Catholic Church during the sexual abuse scandal. Jason Berry shows how one priest, the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, and his largesse, slowed or halted investigations into his abuse of boys over a period of decades. And Berry holds specific individuals to account for their failure to act, which is impressive, given how secretive the church is. The level of detail Berry provides is a credit to his tenacity, his knowledge of the subject and the quality of his sources. This story gives fresh evidence that the scandal was covered up at high levels of the church, and in some cases, in exchange for money. Some stories need to be told no matter how long it takes. This is one of them.
This powerful portrait of the tragic effects of gang violence demonstrates a strong commitment to the people in this story on the part of the photographer and the publication. It takes enormous time and effort to gain this degree of understanding and trust of the people covered. This body of work meets the truest and highest purposes of the profession -- to give a strong and clear voice to those who are suffering. Davidson’s photos are intimate and shocking; they take us far beyond the daily crime stories into a world where being in the wrong place at the wrong time can be fatal.
The project, packaged in an easily navigable Web presentation, is filled with beautifully told stories in text, video and photos of an important topic: the day-to-day challenges facing homeless families. The five-month investigation found an overwhelmed social service network and families living in trucks and bouncing between friends’ homes and run-down motels. The videos of the homeless mothers, fathers and children telling their stories were extremely moving -- and eye-opening. The voice and story of the teenage homeless boy and his single mother – and their quiet dignity – is hard to forget. The outpouring of comments and offers of help from businesses and individuals revealed the nerves the stories touched in the community.
The chance to slip into the lives of young people whom the majority of listeners might never have encountered otherwise is so powerful and important. Most impressive was the honest, well-thought-out manner in which each of the six youth reporters in this series told their stories. Some of those stories were heart-breaking: Brenda’s experience as an undocumented 19-year-old fearing her family could be separated; Roy Lee Spearman Jones’ account of leaving home and sleeping behind trash cans because he is gay; and Antonio Gonzalez’s portrait of six children grieving after their mother’s sudden and mysterious death. If what we do is about helping each other understand each other, then this is as good as it gets.
The “Big Problem” series powerfully illuminates the plight of homeless children in one county beset by a long list of social ills. The stories were engaging, even shocking: The average age of homeless children there is 7, poor students are taxied long distances to school. Moreover, there was nothing gimmicky about the reporting or the production values. Today, that fact alone qualifies as a “fresh take.”
ABC’s effort took a unique look at a problem that would make any parent shudder. But more remarkable than the crew’s ability to explain childhood schizophrenia was its ability to gain the confidence of these families, who became willing to share their most intimate moments -- moments often filled with desperation. The team deserves special recognition for the trust it was able to cultivate from these struggling mothers, fathers and children. That trust enabled the viewer to get an extraordinary look at mental disease that clearly has no obvious cure.
Go behind the scenes with these Casey Medal honorees: