“Innocents Lost,” the thoroughly researched Miami Herald series on child deaths in Florida, received the 2014 Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism on Tuesday.
Awarded by Harvard University, Worth Bingham honors investigative reporting of national significance in areas where the public interest is being ill served.
The Herald I-Team investigation, led by reporters Carol Marbin Miller and Audra D.S. Burch, invested a year of reporting to explore the deaths of 477 children. They found that not only were the children victims of abuse and neglect, but also suffered at the hands of a severely flawed Florida child welfare system.
During a six-year period, Florida had cut both the numbers of children in foster care as well as services for troubled families.
“Innocents Lost” revealed the state repeatedly left children with violent or drug-addicted caregivers, who were asked to sign unenforceable “safety plans.” The series also exposed efforts by Florida’s Department of Children & Families and the Department of Health to manipulate data and block the release of details on child deaths.
As part of the investigation, the Herald filed three lawsuits for the state to release records – two of them successful.
Among the reporters on the project were Tallahassee bureau chief Mary Ellen Klas; data visualization specialist Lazaro Gamio; photographer and videographer Emily Michot; artist/page designer Ana Lense Larrauri and page designer Kara Dapena.
Accompanying the series is an online “Innocents Lost” project database, with searchable profiles of each child who died of abuse or neglect since Jan. 1, 2008, now standing at 534. The Herald also hosted a town hall meeting as a forum for judges, social workers, parents, teachers and other stakeholders to discuss concerns.
The reports led to a major policy shift in state law and policy, with the Legislature allocating nearly $50 million for improved child protection services. Increased funding was the beginning of the most comprehensive child-welfare system overhaul in Florida history.
Reforms include a new child welfare assistant DCF secretary; a “Critical Incident Rapid Response Team” to investigate child deaths during DCF involvement. The agency abandoned “safety plans” that were little more than signed notes of parents – unenforced by the DCF — promising to quit drugs or keep violent individuals away from the children.
Child welfare caseworkers faced felony charges based on their roles in the deaths of two children highlighted by the Herald.
“This series is powerful. Powerful statistics, powerful examples, powerful writing, said Bingham judge Deborah Nelson in a statement. “And that’s what it takes to move government to protect its most vulnerable citizens — and move they did with significant changes in law and policy.”
Bingham judge Lisa Chedekel said the Herald’s examination of the “family preservation” movement and its aftermath is “unprecedented” in both depth and scope.
“The series is a perfect blend of data and people, showing the consequences of the broken system in both compelling narratives and a wrenchingly detailed database on every child death,” she added.
The Miami Herald will receive the Worth Bingham Prize, which comes with a $20,000 award, on May 7, 2015, at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism event at Harvard University in Cambridge.
Eight journalists make up the panel for the Worth Bingham Prize:
- Lisa Chedekel, senior writer and co-founder of the Connecticut Health Investigative Team (C-HIT).
- Cynthia Hubert and Phillip Reese, reporters at The Sacramento Bee.
- James Neff, investigations editor at The Seattle Times.
- Deborah Nelson, associate professor of journalism at University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
- Jacqueline Petchel, executive editor of the Carnegie-Knight News21 multimedia investigative reporting initiative at Arizona State University.
- Jim Schaefer, an investigative reporter/columnist at the Detroit Free Press.
- Stuart Watson, an investigative reporter, based in Charlotte, N.C. and 2008 Nieman Fellow.
The award gets its name from Worth Bingham, a 1954 Harvard University graduate and investigative journalist who served as vice president and assistant to the publisher for the Louisville Courier-Journal. Bingham died at the age of 34. His family and friends created the prize in his memory in 1967.