How the Miami Herald told the story of 477 child deaths

Carol Marbin Miller has six long, deep drawers filled with child death cases.

“And each one is as bad as the one before it,” she said in a phone interview with Poynter.

Since the mid-1990s, Marbin Miller has covered Florida’s Department of Children & Families, first at the St. Petersburg Times (before it became the Tampa Bay Times, which Poynter owns.) Marbin Miller picked up that work in 2000 with the Miami Herald. She’s now an investigative reporter.

On Sunday, March 16, the Herald began publishing the results of decades on that beat, with a project that took years, lawsuits and work from around the newsroom.

“Innocents Lost” tells the story of 477 children killed during the past six years by their parents, by their parents’ significant others, by neglect, by drugs, by abuse. But it also tells the story of a system that each one of those families came into contact with before dying.

They tumbled into canals and drowned, baked in furnace-like cars, were soaked in corrosive chemicals, incinerated, beaten mercilessly, and bounced off walls and concrete pavement. One was jammed into a cooler posthumously; others were wrapped like a mummy to silence their cries, flattened by a truck, overdosed and starved. An infant boy was flung from a moving car on an interstate. A 2-year-old girl was killed by her mom’s pet python.

The children were not just casualties of bad parenting, but of a deliberate shift in Florida child welfare policy. DCF leaders made a decision, nearly 10 years ago, to reduce by as much as half the number of children taken into state care, adopting a philosophy known as family preservation. They also, simultaneously, slashed services, monitoring and protections for the increased number of children left with their violent, neglectful, mentally ill or drug-addicted parents.

The result: Many more children died.

Read the 477 narratives for yourself. Explore the database. Read about the safety plans that never worked. It takes time, and most people she knows, Marbin Miller said, have to stop for a while and come back to it.

In the meantime, here are four things that made this series work.

1. Years of reporting.

In 2011, the death of 10-year-old Nubia Barahona made headlines, and staff at the Herald started asking themselves how they could broaden the story and look at the numbers, said Casey Frank, the Herald’s senior editor for investigations and enterprise, in a phone interview. The Herald requested five years worth of death reviews involving children from DCF. (As the reporting continued, that number stretched to six to include 2013.)

Getting those files took months and court cases, and the Herald didn’t win them all. Once they had the files, they began sorting them, Frank said, looking for cases of families who, like Barahona’s, had contact with DCF.

Then, last summer, a series of child deaths made the news. Again, all the families had prior contact with DCF. Reporting ramped up even more, other reporters were included and “Innocents Lost” started taking a clearer shape.

2. Clean data.

When Lazaro Gamio started working at the Herald as a data and multimedia producer, reporting for “Innocents Lost” had already begun, and there was a database where reporters put information on each child.

Gamio made things simpler, and more visual, using a Google spreadsheet and creating a rough way for reporters to visualize the data with tiles of the children’s faces.

That was just supposed to be a reporting tool, Gamio said, but it became a design element and now it’s also a way readers of “Innocents Lost” can learn about the cases.

Seeing the data also helped make similarities around the cases clearer, Marbin Miller said, including toothless safety plans, live-in boyfriends and the role drug abuse played in many deaths.

Throughout, Gamio worked to keep the data itself cleaned up and uniform, making lots of lists for himself along the way. The result of all that work, he said, is you actually see the work.

“I think of it like a train,” Gamio said. “And the engine room is the data base.”

3. Careful writing.

“Innocents Lost” reports on the deaths of all those children using court documents, death reports, DCF files and interviews with family members. It also uses crisp, clean storytelling.

In the writing process, staff took an intentional approach to the writing, although there was some back and forth on the best way to tell the stories, Marbin Miller said.

The stories couldn’t be sterile, she said, and they couldn’t be overwrought death porn.

“Because of the subject matter, it’s not hard to find yourself overwriting,” said Audra Burch, an enterprise reporter at the Herald who wrote many of the stories in the series, in an e-mail to Poynter. “We had to strike a balance between the facts and the storytelling, between the policy issues and the family voices, which required a certain clarity, restraint and discipline. Making sure we hit the high notes at just the right moment was a big part of the editing process.”

4. Volume.

The time came, late last year, when Burch realized they were basically writing nearly 500 stories.

“Early on, we realized that much of the power of this project was in the sheer number of children’s deaths,” Burch said. “In some ways, that also made the responsibility even greater to humanize the project so that readers could clearly understand and appreciate the scale of the loss. We decided that each of those children deserved their own voice, their own story, all 477 of them.”

That power is evident in the mosaic of faces in the database, as well as the sheer amount of coverage, from a look at the role lawyers for DCF play, to videos of grieving grandparents and questions about what Florida could learn from other states.

Unlike her colleagues, Marbin Miller mostly wasn’t shocked by the number of deaths as the Herald counted them. She knew they were high. But for 2008 and 2009, as the deaths for each of those years neared 100, she was surprised.

“And as we added new cases,” she said, “they kept growing.”

The response

In some ways, “Innocents Lost” has already made a difference.

“The truth is the response to the series began months ago as we requested the documents and showed that we were serious about doing a sweeping look at how DCF protects children, or in some cases, doesn’t,” Frank said.

“Already, the series has prompted discussions about reform, and a rewrite of several child welfare bills proposed in the Legislature,” Burch agreed. “Journalistically, it opened up more possibilities in terms of combining investigative reporting, narrative writing and computer assisted reporting.”

For Marbin Miller, though, the legislative response hasn’t been enough.

“I get the sense that they want to talk about it because it looks good,” she said. “But I don’t get the sense that they have any intention to fix it.”

In Florida’s House, politicians think that $10 million in additional money is enough, she said, and they’re being told by the people on the front lines that it’s not even close.

There’s a senate bill, Marbin Miller said, with money for 400 additional child protection investigators. One source told Marbin Miller, “imagine if you hired a whole bunch more ambulance drivers, but you have no place to take the people once you pick them up.”

There’s still no money for services, she said.

“Then you’re right back where we’ve always been.”

But “Innocents Lost” has already made a difference, Frank said. And much of that was preemptive.

“It’s pretty clear to me that the governor would not be proposing certain things months ago if it were not for what the Herald was reporting and looking into.”

Florida’s government is trying to get out in front of the story, Frank said, “and in doing so, I think child welfare benefited and kids benefited.”

In doing so, he said, he thinks DCF will be run better in the future.

“How much better remains to be seen.”

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  • King-Stanley-Krauter

    Does anyone at Poynter know who Rilya Wilson was?

    They probably don’t. Because if they did, they wouldn’t have written about the “four things that made this series work.” They would have written about how the Miami Herald has repeatedly ignored the abused children who were supposedly being protected by the Department of Children & Families.
    —-
    Rilya Wilson was a foster care child in Florida who was discovered missing in 2000 and is presumed dead. Her fate became profitable for the news media to investigate after someone realized that the Department of Children & Families didn’t know where she was. The last visit by a social worker was two years before her absence was discovered. The foster care parents claimed that a social worker had taken Rilya away and they didn’t know where she was. And the new media’s feeding frenzy revealed that the social workers of Florida were overworked and underpaid.
    —–
    Of course, the scandal forced the government of Florida to make some emergency reforms and to spend more money. But as the “series” has shown, the emergency reforms and money weren’t enough. Especially the money. So who should be blamed for the inadequacy of the Department of Children & Families? The politicians who didn’t spend enough money to hire enough social workers. Or the voters who didn’t forced their politicians to protect the children first and the taxpayers second. Or should it be the Miami Herald and the other newspapers of Florida.
    ——
    Reporters must be entertainers first and journalists second. As a result most voters are too ignorant to vote without the help of campaign commercials. Which is why the reforms that started with Rilya Wilson’s death were slowly undone. The news media of Florida failed to give voters an agenda of issues that could be used every year by voters to set goals for their politicians and to enforce those goals. Even though the reporters of Florida worked hard to entertain their customers, nothing was accomplished. Unfortunately, reporters want to be entertainers first and journalists second. They are the Peeping Toms of society. It is their job to find and expose the dirty underwear of politicians, businessmen, preachers, teachers, et cetera. That is why they became reporters. They like their job of entertaining their customers. They would be bored if they had to educate voters every year with an annual one week review of events and conditions. (Which could become an annual agenda for our government of the people, etc etc.) Consequently the reporters at the Miami Herald ignored the abused children being killed every year until there were enough dead children to make journalism exciting.
    ——
    And I predict that in another ten to twenty years the Miami Herald will get to do another “four things that made this series work.” about the hundreds of dead children and the incompetency of the DCF. In my opinion, the reporters of Florida think they are too important to be responsible for educating voters instead of entertaining their customers and themselves.