Journalists often get alarming tips about practices within Child Protective Services (CPS) agencies, but it has always been a nearly impossible task to overcome privacy protections and get even basic information about how CPS handles reports of child abuse or neglect.
"It's a difficult agency to write about, for some good reasons," Sacramento Bee reporter Marjie Lundstrom, who set out in 2007 to investigate complaints about Sacramento's CPS, told the Guardian. "They operate in such a vacuum with very little public scrutiny."
She had started to piece together some information from coroner's records and other public documents when Senate Bill 39 went into effect in January 2008, "and it was just amazing what it opened up."
The bill reveals CPS files in cases where the child has died, allowing Lundstrom to expose the negligence of CPS workers in responding to abuse reports, even those from doctors. "I do feel like what we were able to show, because of the law, where workers made flagrant mistakes that costs kids their lives," she said.
But many CPS records are still secret. Next, after writing several stories about CPS that sparked a grand jury investigation, Lundstrom intends to expose problems within the internal accountability procedures at CPS. (Steven T. Jones)
HILARY COSTA AND JOHN SIMERMAN
When the news broke last September that 15-year-old Jazzmin Davis had been murdered by her aunt after suffering months of abuse and neglect in her Antioch home, Bay Area News Group reporters Hilary Costa and John Simerman submitted a public records request about the girl's case history with the San Francisco Human Services Agency.
The city denied the request for nearly two months, using a privacy claim. Undeterred, the journalists took the step of testing out Senate Bill 39, a relatively new piece of legislation that mandates public disclosure of findings and information about children who have died of abuse or neglect. A judge eventually ordered that the records be released.
Although highly redacted, the nearly 700-page paper trail told the girl's story in the form of hand-written notes, report cards, medical records, caseworker visits, and other detailed documents. The records led to a package of stories that exposed a series of failures and violations of state regulations by an HSA social worker, raising questions about agency practices and spurring a review of hundreds of other foster care cases.
"This story's been so important to me," Costa told the Guardian. "It felt like somebody owed it to Jazzmin to find out what happened to her." (Rebecca Bowe)
AUTUMN CRUZ AND MITCHELL BROOKS
Sacramento Bee photographer Autumn Cruz had been covering the trial of three-year-old K.C. Balbuena's murder for several months when she came up with the concept of creating an interactive online courtroom. With the help of Bee graphic journalist Mitchell Brooks, Cruz made public the essential pieces of evidence and information to those outside the courtroom doors.
Viewers can take a virtual tour of the exhibits and documents, along with video and audio statements and interrogations. "As a journalist, you're fighting every day for your right to information," Cruz told the Guardian.
Although Balbuena's mother and roommate were found guilty of the murder in early 2008, Cruz laments her inability to bring back the child she grew to know so intimately only after his life was cut short.