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DC's Child Protective Services Fail The Children

In 2002 Pulitzer Prize Winners Sari Horowitz, Scott Hingham, and Sarah Cohen from The Washington Post investigated on DC’s role in neglect and death of 229 children from 1993-2000. The series of articles went as follows:

  1. ‘Protected’ Children Died as Government Did Little (09/09/2001)

  2. Trying to Mend the ‘Frayed Trust’

  3. In Search of a Clear Conscious, Worker Left

  4. A Foster Girl Is Sent Away and Dies Alone

  5. For the Unwanted, Few Options

  6. A Child’s Story

  7. Children’s Stories

  8. Without Help, Frail Infants Died: Newborns Released to Troubled Mothers With

  9. Little D.C. Supervision

  10. Children’s Stories

  11. Children’s Stories

  12. A Home With No Electricity, No Hope

  13. Child Endagered, Without a Lifeline

  14. Children’s Stories

  15. Children’s Stories

These stories were based on how the team began with a single story and soon discovered that it went beyond just the one case of neglect on behalf of the children in DC’s child protection services. The team created their own data-base in order to triangulate the cases between each other.

Sari Horowitz is a native of Tucson and holds a bachelor's degree in political science from Bryn Mawr College and a master's degree in politics, philosophy and economics from Oxford University. Sari Horwitz covers the Justice Department for The Washington Post where she has been a reporter for more than 30 years. She has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize three times.After the 2002 story, the series prompted an overhaul of the child welfare system and a new wing of D.C. Superior Court for children and families. Horowitz also co-wrote an investigation of D.C. police shootings that revealed that D.C. police officers shot and killed more people per resident in the 1990s than any other large American city police force. The series won the 1999 Pulitzer for Public Service and the 1999 Selden Ring Award for investigative reporting. It led to a Justice Department investigation of all DC police shootings in the 1990s and new training of all officers. In 2008, she was part of a team awarded the Pulitzer for breaking news coverage of the shooting rampage at Virginia Tech. In 2015, she won the American Society of News Editors Distinguished Writing on Diversity Award and the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism for her series on justice on Native American lands. Her 2014 series was also compiled in an e-book, “Justice in Indian Country.” At The Washington Post, she has reported on crime, police, legal issues, education and social services for the local and national staffs and the Post's Investigative unit.

Similarly, Scott Higham is a reporter on The Washington Post's investigative staff. Before joining the newspaper in 2000, he worked for the Baltimore Sun, the Miami Herald and the Allentown Morning Call, spending much of his 15-year career producing investigative projects. At the Miami Herald he worked on a year-long police corruption investigation and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for a magazine article he co-authored with April Witt that explored the lives of seven teenagers who murdered one of their friends. He also served on a six-reporter team assigned to cover the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew and belonged to another team that was cited as a Pulitzer finalist for its reporting on a legal battle fought by parents of a child born without a brain.At the Baltimore Sun, he worked with Walter F. Roche Jr. on a conflict-of-interest investigation that prompted the first expulsion of a state senator from the Maryland General Assembly in 200 years. He also led the Sun's coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing and conducted investigations of the Maryland State Police, the Housing Authority of Baltimore and the Maryland Circuit Court system, each of them resulting in numerous government reforms. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.

And finally, Sarah Cohen was a database editor for The Washington Post, mainly assigned to national and local investigative projects. Before joining The Post in 1999, she worked for Investigative Reporters and Editors, the St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Maryland's graduate program in public affairs reporting. Cohen currently works at The University of Arizona, after a 25-year journalism career, most recently leading a data journalism team at The New York Times that specialized in original reporting. She also was a Pulitzer finalist for Public Service in 2007 for a series that uncovered waste and duplication in federal farm subsidy programs. Other honors include the Goldsmith Prize in Investigative Reporting, the Investigative Reporters and Editors medal, and the Selden Ring Award. At Duke, Cohen is conducting research concentrated on new technologies that could help lower the cost of investigative reporting by reducing the most repetitive and least creative parts of the job. She is finishing a project for Columbia focusing on data science applications in investigative reporting. She is also the immediate past president of Investigative Reporters and Editors, a 5,000-member journalism educational and training organization. She has served as a board member and adviser to the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

And I had the opportunity to speak with her.

As a data journalist, Cohen said that this distinction from ‘regular journalism’ has gotten conflated with numbers and statistics and math.

“I like to focus on precision journalism and the big part of that is I focus on the reporting and the news-gathering side,” Cohen said.

She explained how with the Times, there were four different groups:

  1. The Upshot wrote about data and in the sense of not being original reporting, rather, it is more of an opinion on reports.

  2. Interactive News which handles the coding and presentation of data bases.

  3. Data Visualization, which at the Times was a graphics department, but has moved away from visualization and more towards visual storytelling.

  4. News-gathering which is a reporting phase, as an extension of documents in relation reporting. Here, Cohen said that material could be anything - images, data bases - but the essential part of is the empirical spine of investigative reporting. Is it bigger, is it wanting to be bigger? In some ways it is statistical work but in reality, it is about how the stories add up.

In relation to her work with the two Pulitzer-recognized stories, Cohen finds that these two stories exemplify just how different pieces of data need to be handled. She recounts that piecing the identities of over 200 kids that were kept secret, was a classical content analysis of changes that should be made to prevent this sort of occurrence in the future. Working backwards, starting from statistics and piecing them together, the team started with just a list: created by reading through documents and systematically writing down what they said and how DC’s CPS ignored the warnings. But the recommendations were separate and were done differently. However, on the very opposite was the farmers with hundred-million payments to farmers and the question was: what is newsworthy here? Cohen accounts that she “worked with a fantastic writer and beat reporter that went together on interviews to figure out what was wrong with the system. But the biggest concern for the farmers story was how much money is too much to waste that we start to care about it? For the DC cps story, this was easy because one child’s death is one too many. However, the farmers story had to pinpoint amounts. Nonetheless, Cohen explains how the reader can find themes in each of piece of the farmers series that primarily follows the template: “We were lead to believe X but Y is happening”. Regardless, Cohen warns that there is a fine line between relying too much on data for a story. She said that the data should be regarded as an ‘empirical spin’ that could prove or disprove your point but people are the driving force of the story and what is happening.

“Some stories you would look to see some tests in the background with statistical methods or simulations,” Cohen said. “Every story I work on, everybody knows that you have to do a little bit of everybody else’s job. And the best part of data jounralism is when you find a raw documentation to use in your story.”

This focus on the story and not the data is the human-interest side of reporting that Cohen says she admires. Similarly, she said that even if a reporter can not get exactly numbers due to legal reasons or otherwise, using records instead of number alongside the stories and anecdotes can be very beneficial.

At Columbia, Cohen has been working on a project involving data science for investigative reporting. Cohen says one of the things that’s happened is that we are still using techniques that people in other fields (business, law, homeland security, intelligence, and medicine, social science, humanities) have well surpassed. By looking through these approaches, Cohen hopes to create a guide for journalists in data science and statistics.

“What we’re doing now in newsrooms is about 20 years old and our techniques haven’t changed. Knowledge of how to deal with large amounts of data is small in comparison and these techniques in computer science and data science are what we should be able to harness,” Cohen said.

Identifying something and over time having it become part of the public debate or spur some change is this concept that journalists aspire to hold: impact. Cohen says that this idea of prizes surrounding this concept of impact is rather old fashioned and how some of the most impactful stories took years to have impact. Therefore, Cohen commented that she doesn’t want this reactive sense of impact but rather to bring something that people wanted to keep hidden or wanted to bring to light. To her, much like other journalists, holding government and large institutions accountable is ‘what we do’ through the extent of public pressure or impact.

Cohen, Horowitz, and Higham all started on the story because Horowitz was assigned as a beat reporter for social services. In January of 2000 a horrific case of toddler Brianna Blackmond, who was killed by a friend of her mother, shook the foundation of DC’s child protection services.

“There she has affixed a newspaper clipping, detailing how, on a judge's orders, Brianna had been returned to her biological mother's home--where she later suffered a fatal blow to the head” (The Washington Post) said Horowitz in the article about Blackmond’s foster mother.

This single case is how the team got wind of the bigger problem in the DC area and it was all thanks to incredible reporting. Horowitz and Higham, according to Cohen, worked to uncover what happened in Blackmond’s case when they hear a chilling question: “Why are you writing about Brianna, what about all the others?”

And this moment set them on their path:

“Thousands of once-secret documents provide an unprecedented look inside the city's child protection agency - the only one in the nation to operate under federal court control as part of a large-scale reform effort that began in 1991. The records illustrate how the decade-long effort failed some of the District's youngest wards. Interviews and additional investigation uncovered the reasons the children lost their lives, the government agencies involved, and the identities of the workers who committed critical mistakes and errors of judgment” (The Pulitzer Prizes).

The investigation of the reporters uncovered the 229 cases of boys and girls put in the care of DC’s child protective services that led to serious neglect and death. The 2002 reporting led to an outrage throughout the city for the CPS to have major improvements for the system. After the last of the reports came out in September, there was a study praising D.C. for making such improvements in the foster care system that was released in October. According to The Washington Post reporter, Arthur Santana, “The District's long-troubled child welfare system is doing a better job finding permanent homes for children in foster care and is acting faster in cases alleging child abuse and neglect, according to a report issued yesterday.” This immediate impact on DC’s local level led to policies to be changed and cases of speculated neglect to be immedidely investigated by child protective services. Although the deaths and harm to the previous 229 known and likely many more unknown children, the steps toward progress was ultimately the team’s final goal.

Works Cited

Cohen, Sarah. Telephone Interview. 21 November 2017.

The Washington Post, WP Company,

Santana, Arthur. “Study Praises D.C. For Moving Faster With Foster Care.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 23 Oct.