Grantee Stories

Foster Parents Struggle Against Retaliation by State Caseworkers

Robbie Banks-Onthank and her husband Bill Onthank sit for a portrait at their home in Stevenson, Skamania County. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

In the silent crisis that is Washington’s shortage of foster homes, one problem is often discussed among foster parents but rarely documented: the punitive ways in which some state caseworkers treat foster parents. It’s a factor that state officials realized and discussed internally long ago – but have yet to fully address, according to state government records and interviews.

According to an investigation by FIJ Grantee Rachel Nielsen, interviews with more than a dozen current foster parents, former foster parents, state officials and others show that caseworkers’ perceived threats are creating a culture of fear among foster parents, who live under strict regulations in order to maintain their foster licenses.

Read Nielsen’s entire story for InvestigateWest here.

Investigation Shows Native Americans More Likely to be Searched by Washington State Police

For more than twelve years, Washington State Patrol Troopers have been searching drivers from minority communities, particularly Native Americans, at a rate much higher — more than five times — than that of whites, FIJ grantees Jason Buch and Joy Borkholder, report for InvestigateWest.

Their investigation also shows that the Washington State Patrol reported data on the race and ethnicity of motorists stopped by troopers just three times in the 15 years following a state law requiring reporting. For many people from communities of color in Washington State, Buch and Borkholder’s findings showed statistically what they have observed in person for years.

Photo by Matt Popovich on Unsplash

White Supremacist Groups Recruitment in Police Departments

For decades, anti-government and white supremacist groups have been attempting to recruit police officers – and the authorities themselves aren’t even certain about the scale of the problem, FIJ grantees Varnham O’Regan and Maddy Crowell, report for The Guardian.

Hank Willis Thomas’ Raise Up statue at the National Memorial For Peace And Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Photograph: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

Efforts to Stave off Detroit Foreclosures Leaves Many Residents Deeper in Debt

Nearly one in four Detroit homeowners owes more in delinquent property taxes than they did three years ago despite being a part of a county program designed to help them get out of debt and avoid foreclosure, according to a Detroit News analysis.

The payment plans, with lower interest rates and an extended five-year repayment deadline, were a solution devised by officials, including Mayor Mike Duggan, to get homeowners out of danger in the midst of Detroit’s record-setting tax foreclosure crisis.

But a Detroit News investigation by News reporter Christine MacDonald and FIJ grantee Mark Betancourt has found that the plans, enacted in state law in 2015, have kept thousands in a payment plan purgatory that likely will lead to the loss of their homes without more help.

Candis Patterson of Detroit has been on a payment plan for unpaid property taxes since December 2015. She finds it difficult to keep up with the $179 monthly payment and worries about losing her home. Photo by Max Ortiz, The Detroit News

Spiraling Immigration Costs Under Trump Put a Strain on Migrant Families

Even as the immigration court system becomes more and more backlogged — rising to more than 1 million cases in September — and detention facilities managed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have hit record levels, holding more than 50,000 people nationwide, officials are seeking much higher bonds for immigrants or refusing them altogether, FIJ grantee Paul Ingram reports for the Tucson Sentinel.

Margo Cowan meets with clients during a Keep Tucson Together event. An immigration lawyer for more than 40 years, Cowan worries about the rising prices of bonds for immigrants. Photo by Paul Ingram.

How a Georgia Jail Doctor Made a Fortune on Prisoners

For local law enforcement, health care for inmates can be a burden. For one doctor, it has been the opportunity of a lifetime. FIJ grantee Max Blau spent a year investigating how Dr. Carlo Musso, Georgia’s former deathrow doctor, built a medical empire in Southern jails. His stories were published in Atlanta Magazine and the Georgia Telegraph.

Illustration by Mike McQuade

A Murder in New Orleans and a Wrong Conviction

In 1988, Erin Hunter was convicted of a murder in New Orleans he claimed to know nothing about after a trial that took place in a single morning. Years later, the detective who investigated the case went to federal prison for extortion, the prosecutor remembered the single eyewitness as being of “dubious character,” and investigators suggested Hunter was set up. But Hunter remained in prison for three decades. Nicholas Chrastil reports this story for The Lens.

Photo: Erin Hunter as a young man. (Courtesy of the Hunter family)

Danger in the Ground: Lead Contaminates Neighborhood

Despite alarmingly high levels of lead in the soil of a mostly poor, largely African American community in Atlanta that is now an EPA Superfund “removal action” site, there has been no effort by state or local officials to test children for contamination.  An investigation by Georgia Health News, the Georgia News Lab and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution brought the story to light with the help of a grant from FIJ.

Lead Slag, a byproduct of smelting found near homes in Atlanta. Photo by Curtis Compton of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

 

California Foundation Created to Help Fire Victims More Interested in Lobbying for PG&E

The Rebuild North Bay Foundation was created in October 2017, ostensibly to provide relief to thousands of victims of wildfires in Sonoma and Napa counties in California. As Peter Byrne and Will Carruthers report in the Pacific Sun the foundation performed little or no relief work, choosing to focus on lobbying on behalf of prominent businesspeople and Pacific Gas & Electric.

Photo Collage by Pacific Sun

 

Should Civilians Investigate Police-Related Shootings in New Hampshire?

Most police shootings in New Hampshire over the last three decades have been ruled justified by the state Attorney General’s Office perhaps because investigations were completed by the New Hampshire State Police. Nancy West of inDepthNH.org investigates how the state is now considering a civilian review board to determine whether police have acted appropriately when using lethal force against citizens.

Photo: Cody Lafont who was shot to death by a Claremont police officer who went to his home to tell him to stop calling 911 early on Sept. 25, 2016. Photo courtesy of the Lafont family.

Suicide Hidden in Colleges in Massachusetts

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students across the United States. And numbers are on the rise. But you won’t hear details about these tragic deaths from Massachusetts colleges and universities. Most of them don’t release information if they track it at all.

Jenifer McKim, a reporter with the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, used data and public records to look into this problem in a state that draws students from across the world.  Here are her print and radio stories that ran in the Boston Globe and WGBH News.

Luke Tang  Harvard University freshman, committed suicide on campus in 2016.  Photo courtesy of Lucy Wang

Half the Judges in Venezuela are Linked to the Ruling Party

FIJ grantee Joseph Poliszuk of Armando.info, an online publication in Venezuela, finished a three-year investigation on the independence of judges in Venezuela. He and his partners at Armando.info created a website that tracks 6,000 judges throughout the country, finding evidence that 50 percent of the justices in the country were selected for those positions because of political ties to the Maduro government.  Poliszuk and his colleagues at Armando.info are now living in exile in Colombia after facing legal problems in Venezuela because of their journalism work. English versions of some of the stories are here.

Race, Land and Justice

More than two decades ago, a group including the white sheriff of Limestone County, Ala., rustled and slaughtered more than 60 head of cattle owned by Michael Stovall, a black farmer. They then dumped the carcasses into graves dug up on the farmer’s land. That was the finding of a Department of Agriculture special investigation. But the culprits remained free, and the farmer went to jail because officials accused him of starving the animals to death.

FIJ grantee Katti Gray delves into this story and others that look at how the USDA has engaged in actions that have eroded black farm ownership.

Michael Stovall inside a chicken house that was to be part of a USDA-financed farm expansion that never happened. Photo by Katti Gray

Local Communities Fight Oil and Gas Projects in the Pacific Northwest

“Holding the Thin Green Line,” a  radio documentary by FIJ grantee Barbara Bernstein, tells the stories of communities fighting fossil fuel industry projects in the Pacific Northwest .

The first hour follows the efforts of activists in Tacoma and Kalama, Washington, to stop construction of the world’s largest methanol refinery and delves into the saga of Puget Sound Energy’s effort to build a liquid natural gas facility at the Port of Tacoma. The second hour tells the stories of citizen push-back against the construction of what could become the largest liquid natural gas (LNG) export terminal on the West Coast. This mammoth facility is being proposed for Coos Bay, Oregon.  It would be fed by a 240-mile-long pipeline transporting fracked gas across four counties in southern Oregon, disturbing 480 rivers and streams in its wake.

Photo by Barbara Bernstein

Teachers and School Officials Get Off Easy on Sexual Assaults in Southern California

A two-year investigation by The Voice of San Diego of sexual misconduct by teachers and other public school employees found that the employees seldom face termination, but often leave with hush deals that protect reputations and enable them to continue working in education.

Records obtained show some teachers were quietly reprimanded for years as complaints piled up. Other times, school districts moved teachers from school to school after finding they violated sexual harassment policies with students. In one case, a Southwestern College educator resigned with a non disclosure agreement after committing sex acts with students in his office. He then went on to work at San Diego City College.

Loxie Grant, one of at least four women who have said physics teacher Martin Teachworth harassed them when they were students at La Jolla High School. Photo by Adriana Heldiz

 

One African American Family’s Struggle With the Mental Health Care System

WAITING FOR TEARAH,” a film directed by FIJ grantee Juliana Schatz is an intimate portrait of a mother struggling to find mental health care for her child. Shot over two years, this vérité film tells the story of Shayna, a single parent of three girls on the brink of losing her home due to medical costs, while her eldest daughter, Tearah, waits for months in a psychiatric hospital. Day after day, Shayna navigates a complicated maze of government agencies as she fights for much-needed treatment for Tearah.

The film was broadcast by Frontline and featured in the Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival & Symposium 2019 in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Frontline

Rape of Alaska Native Women High; Police Investigations Low

For years, Alaska Native women have urged officials to address a crisis of violence throughout their state: Reported rapes are twice the national average, and child sexual violence is six times the national average.  Alaska’s western region has the state’s highest rate of felony sex offenses, and the overwhelming majority of victims are Alaska Native. Victoria McKenzie addresses the issue in a story co-published by Associated Press and National Native News.

In Nome, a city of fewer than 4,000 full-time residents that serves as a regional hub for dozens of smaller villages across western Alaska’s Bering Strait region, rape survivors and their supporters say the city’s police department has often failed to investigate sexual assaults or keep survivors informed about what is happening with their cases, even after they underwent invasive rape exams. An analysis of police records shows that, over the past decade, only 8 percent of calls to the department about sexual assaults resulted in an arrest with charges filed. Even fewer made it to court.

Photo credits: AP Photo/ Maye-E Wong

Flint’s Deadly Water

FIJ grantees Abby Ellis and Kayla Ruble released the documentary, “Flint’s Deadly Water,” with Frontline. The project followed a two-year investigation, in which Ellis and Ruble uncovered the extent of a deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreak during the Flint, Michigan, water crisis — and how officials failed to stop it.

The disease’s outbreak in Flint was one of the largest in U.S. history, sickening at least 90 people and killing 12, according to state data. But Ellis’s investigation strongly suggests the actual toll was much higher.

Photo: Frontline