Miami Herald's 'Innocents Lost' project wins $35,000 award for investigative reporting

USC Annenberg

On Friday, USC Annenberg announced that Carol Marbin Miller and Audra Burch won the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting. Marbin Miller and Burch won the $35,000 prize for their series for the Miami Herald, "Innocents Lost."

“Innocents Lost” chronicled the deaths of 477 children whose families had been known by Florida child welfare authorities. The project drew on records from the state Department of Children and Families, other state agencies and law enforcement – as well as interviews with police, prosecutors, teachers, doctors, relatives, family friends, child welfare administrators, children’s advocates, social workers, judges and others. The Herald filed three lawsuits, two of them successful, in their pursuit of the records.

In March of last year, I wrote about the project and spoke with Marbin Miller, Burch and multimedia producer Lazaro Gamio about their work and four things they did that made the series work.

“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.”

"Innocents Lost" is also among six finalists for the 2015 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting from the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

In the press release announcing the award, USC Annenberg also praised the impact of "Innocents Lost."

The Miami Herald’s project had an immediate, sweeping effect. Within three months of its launch, Florida lawmakers unanimously passed legislation that affected almost every facet of child protection policy.

The law established a new assistant secretary for child welfare at DCF; developed a “Critical Incident Rapid Response Team” to send teams of investigators in after the death of a child who had had DCF involvement; and eliminated the use of “safety plans” that were nothing more than parents signing notes promising to quit drugs or keep a violent boyfriend away from the home – with no enforcement.

It established a new, transparent website for DCF that posts information about individual child deaths.

The law also assigned almost $50 million in additional funds for child protection, and Gov. Rick Scott has proposed allocating another $80 million next year.

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