How Hearst Connecticut uncovered sexual abuse at Boys & Girls Clubs across the country

September 30, 2019

It took seven journalists, 100 FOIA requests, 1,600 documents and 3,000 hours of work. In August, Hearst Connecticut published a project that detailed 95 cases of alleged sex abuse at Boys & Girls Clubs in 30 states.

“Boys & Girls Club of America does not publicly keep track of perpetrators or abuse allegations against staff or volunteers,” Hearst Connecticut’s Lisa Yanick Litwiller wrote in a companion piece to the project. “Until now, there was no comprehensive list of accused abusers, dates and affiliate clubs. Our project created that public database.

The whole thing started with a question from reporter Hannah Dellinger after she saw a lawsuit alleging abuse at one of the clubs – was there more?

There was.

Hearst Connecticut is made up of eight dailies and 14 weeklies, including the New Haven Register, the Connecticut Post and the Stamford Advocate. Their investigation didn’t just cover Connecticut, it spread around the country. You can read about how that team created its nation-wide database and project below. Plus, see how The (Raleigh, North Carolina) News & Observer used tips and public records to uncover how the city broke a state law.

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What’s your newsroom working on? Share the work that you’re proud of, and I’ll reach out if we decide to feature it.

All the answers shared here came through a Google form and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

“We utilized every resource we had…and we pushed our digging as far as we could go in each case.” Lisa Yanick Litwiller, Hearst Connecticut Media

 

Newsroom: Hearst Connecticut

Newsroom size: 175 across the state

Project: At Risk: Boys and Girls Clubs and sexual abuse

How did you make this project happen? 

We created a team of six journalists plus me (Litwiller) focused over six months almost exclusively on research, finding and verifying records, reaching out to each named club and alleged suspect, writing stories and building our database and map. We utilized every resource we had (time, money, know-how) and we pushed our digging as far as we could go in each case.

At the same time, we did the good journalism work of writing comprehensive stories that were surfaced during the research process, along with a main “capital J” story that revealed patterns, trends and potential pitfalls for youth-serving organizations.

Finally, we felt it was important to offer a platform for victims and a place for those affected to let us know what we’re missing, what stories should be shared, more of the scope. Looking ahead to what could be coming as states evaluate statutes of limitations and why that matters to victims was key.

Related training: The power of public records

Screenshot, the database from At Risk.

What did you learn about from the process?

Journalism serves the greater good. I knew that already, but Hearst’s commitment to creating this project on a national scale as a public service was a great reminder. I learned that although we hit roadblocks gathering public information in 30 states, there are many, many public servants who are helpful and believe in the public’s right to know as much as journalists. This project put a spotlight on how important journalism skills can be. Although public and open information belongs to everyone, our ability to understand the rules, the FOI process in general, how court and police systems are likely to work and the massive hours we put in — coupled with our resources — illustrated how frustrating and even prohibitive it might be for a community member navigating the same process.

Reporters at Hearst Connecticut spent six months on At Risk. Pictured here is one way they kept track of all the cases. (Image via Hearst Connecticut)

How can other local newsrooms do work like this?

  • Approach the process like a scientist.
  • Seek to answer a question or a need.
  • Create a process right away and stay organized.
  • One team communication platform to rule the team.
  • Discuss the scale and the resource needs up front with leaders, and ask early what parameters might exist.
  • Keep team motivated, excited and on task … and check in with their well-being.
  • Have a thesis, but don’t plan the final presentation/content of the project at the start, let it grow and evolve.
  • Use tools to stay organized and informed regarding your subject matter. (I used multiple Google alerts to keep on top of new sexual abuse cases connected to Boys & Girls Clubs over the six months.)
  • Slack to communicate Google products for our master spreadsheet, process documentation, resource lists.

Did your work result in any changes? 

Yes. Boys & Girls Clubs of America issued a statement within hours of publication, saying they will hire a third-party company to evaluate their safety and accounting of incidents practices, that they will require affiliate clubs to have similar third-party evaluations, and that affiliates will participate in a “Safety Day.” We plan to follow up [including] updating our database and updating our coverage.

Staffers involved: Hannah Dellinger, Lisa Yanick Litwiller, Viktoria Sundqvist, Meghan Friedmann, Peter Yankowski, Tatiana Flowers and Humberto J. Rocha.

“Good stories take time.” Anna Johnson, The News & Observer

 

Newsroom: The News & Observer

Newsroom size: 60

Story: An 83-year-old man fell on a city escalator. Raleigh broke state law not reporting it.

How did you make this story/series happen? 

This story idea began with routine beat reporting. After we wrote about the Raleigh Convention Center director being demoted, we began receiving tips about a man who was seriously injured walking down an escalator. We submitted public records requests to the city asking about injuries at the convention center and its policies but the city did not provide them. We then received a stack of emails, video and tips from a City of Raleigh employee. We used public documents from state organizations to verify the information we received. We built a relationship with this source which resulted in more information being provided. With that information, we used public information to find the family of the man who fell.

Related reading: The Miami Herald’s investigation ‘pulls the sewer lid’ off a 10-year-old story

Screenshot, Raleigh News & Observer

What did you learn from the process?

There were many lessons from this story and the process. Good stories take time. You need to be patient with nervous sources, especially those worried about their jobs. If you reach a roadblock at one level of government, try the next layer. Public records at one level can tell you what records at another level do not. Most of all, you need to stick with a story through all the competing dailies and easier enterprise work to hold governments accountable to readers.

Screenshot, The News & Observer

Staffers involved: Anna Johnson and Mark Schultz.

Kristen Hare covers the transformation of local news for Poynter.org. She can be reached at khare@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare

Correction: The names of Viktoria Sundqvist and Meghan Friedmann were misspelled. They have been corrected.