Grantee Stories

How the Coronavirus Pandemic Is Playing Out Inside D.C.’s Troubled Child Welfare Agency

As the novel coronavirus continued to spread across the D.C. region in early spring, social workers at the district’s child protective services agency began to panic: Their bosses appeared oblivious to the toll this would take on their workforce. Dozens of sick or symptomatic employees, knockoff N95 masks, and COVID-19-positive foster children staying overnight at agency headquarters — in violation of a court order — would be just the beginning for the agency.

Writing for Washington City Paper, FIJ grantee Morgan Baskin investigated the Child and Family Services Agency’s reaction to the threat the pandemic posed. She found the agency delayed or never implemented  critical interventions that could have made vulnerable staff and children safer.

Read Baskin’s full report, here

FIJ Grantee’s Documentary on Reproductive Rights in Prisons to Open Human Rights Watch Film Festival

For the better part of the last decade, FIJ grantee Erika Cohn, a Peabody and Emmy Award-winning director/producer, has worked to shine a light on reproductive and human rights violations inside the walls of California’s women’s prisons. In 2010, Cohn began following the work of Cynthia Chandler, an activist lawyer, and Kelli Dillon, a woman who was involuntarily sterilized at the Central California Women’s Facility, as they fought to expose those abuses. The result is Cohn’s film, “Belly of the Beast.”

Set to debut on opening night of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on June 11, the documentary follows Chandler and Dillon as they wage a near impossible battle against the Department of Corrections, and spearhead investigations that uncover a series of statewide crimes, primarily targeting women of color, from inadequate access to health care to sexual assault to illegal sterilization.

“It was modern day eugenics,” said Cohn. “Even though I had hundreds of testimonials from people directly impacted, a lot of people couldn’t wrap their head around the fact this was actually happening.”

As a result of this skepticism, Cohn’s film went mostly unfunded in its early stages.

But in 2013, Cohn said, Chandler’s advocacy work along with increasing media coverage thrust the sterilization issue into a national conversation and helped validate the experiences of her sources. The mounting evidence also led to hearings in the state Legislature and eventually to the passage of a bill in 2014 banning sterilization as a form of birth control for the state’s female prisoners.

Cohn received a grant from FIJ soon after to further investigate the extent to which these violations had occurred in prisons throughout the state.

FIJ’s funding, Cohn said, came at a crucial time, and led to a wealth of new reporting that helped validate the experiences of hundreds of women interviewed throughout the film’s production.

“This film required a different investigative reporting process that a lot of traditional film funders weren’t supporting,” said Cohn. “FIJ’s support allowed us to take a deeper dive into the journalistic component.”

Coca-Cola Skirts Restrictions as Cape Town Runs out of Water

At the beginning of 2018, Cape Town faced the very real prospect of becoming the first major city in the world to run out of water. City officials responded by dramatically increasing the cost of water to residents, fining anyone caught wasting water, and penalizing households that exceeded their daily 50-liter-per-person quota by installing water management devices that restricted the flow to their properties. Yet despite these restrictions, the Cape Town-based bottlers of Coca-Cola continued using at least 44 million liters of water a month without ever being penalized.

FIJ grantee Raymond Joseph and co-author Steve Kretzmann investigated Coca-Cola’s efforts to ignore water restrictions and skirt penalties for GroundUp.

Capetonians living under unprecedented water restrictions limiting them to 50l per person per day in early 2018, descended on the city’s natural springs to collect water to supplement their municipal water use.  Photo: Steve Kretzmann

Unique Reporting Project Untangles Myths Behind the Land Grant University System

Nearly 11 million acres of indigenous land. Approximately 250 tribes, bands and communities. Over 160 violence-backed treaties and land seizures. Fifty-two universities. From High Country News’ Indigenous Affairs desk comes “Land-Grab Universities,” a unique reporting project funded in part by FIJ that untangles the powerful and painful strains of myth and money behind the land-grant university system, largely credited with broadening access to higher education in the United States.

It was all part of President Abraham Lincoln’s creed: “The right to rise.” And though generations of land-grant graduates have exercised that right, reporters Robert Lee and Tristan Ahtone say few have thought to ask who actually paid for the opportunity, and how it was done. According to their reporting, it came through the transfer or violent seizure of indigenous land. But to this day, indigenous people remain largely absent from student populations, staff, faculty and curriculum. In 1862, Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which distributed public domain lands to raise funds for fledgling colleges across the nation. The act turned land taken from tribal nations into seed money for higher education.

You can read the full story here.

Photo: Discovery Park, Seattle, Washington. A parcel of indigenous land granted to the State of South Carolina
fir the benefit of Clemson University and South Carolina State University. Kalen Goodluck/High Country News

Heroes, Terrorists, and the Police

A small police training company owned by Chicago officers, the International Tactical Training Association (ITTA), has been training units of the police of El Salvador in the use of force, according to a recent report by FIJ grantee Danielle Mackey.

According to Mackey’s investigation, the training has no oversight from either the U.S. or Salvadoran governments, although ITTA appears to have extensive U.S. federal and military connections. Mackey reports that the situation is particularly concerning given the evidence of excessive use of force by both the Chicago trainers and the Salvadoran trainees.

You can read the full report here. 

Photo: Salvadoran PNC officers do target practice in an ITTA course. Source: ANSP Flickr account.

Inside Trump’s Divisive Program to Identify and Deter Potential Extremists in U.S. communities

A counter-extremism grant program funded and administered by the Trump administration’s Department of Homeland Security lacked transparency and deepened government mistrust among some minority communities it targeted, according to a report by FIJ grantee Julia Harte in The Nation magazine

As Harte reports, two-thirds of the applications chosen by the Trump administration focused on immigrants or Muslims, mostly ignoring domestic terrorists and white supremacists. Several grant recipients did not disclose to participants that they were DHS-funded and targeting people deemed susceptible to violent extremism. While DHS officials and grantees said the projects funded sought to remove the barriers that exist between minority ethnic groups and law enforcement and local leaders, civil rights advocates say the programs bred more fear than trust.

You can read Harte’s full report, here.

Photo: Shabbir Patel, security director for a Chicago mosque, said a counter-extremism grant could have better protected his community if it had paid for systems to guard the building against intruders. CREDIT: Julia Harte

Southern California Murder Suspect Denies He’s in Montenegro to Dodge Arrest

A former Southern California businessman sought in connection with the ambush slaying of a Rolling Hills Estates lawyer and the home-invasion killing of a Whittier, Calif., man lives in a $2 million home along the Adriatic Sea in Montenegro, where the lack of an extradition treaty with the U.S. protects him from arrest.

(Photo by Vladimir Otasevic)

Richard Henry Wall, 67, who was identified in 2017 as a suspect in the killings, as well as a homicide in Las Vegas, recently denied committing the crimes or that he fled Whittier for the Balkan nation to avoid prosecution.

FIJ grantees Larry Altman, Vladimir Otasevic and Sasa Lekovic’s full report can be found here.

Don’t Count On the Census

The 2020 census will make a huge imprint on the nation for a decade, from determining how much federal money goes to states to divvying up congressional seats and helping city planners figure out where to build schools. But, as FIJ grantee Natasha Haverty reports for Reveal, when the Census Bureau does its next count this April, it will be counting nearly two million people in the wrong place: in the place where they are incarcerated, not where they call home.

What started as a quirk in the way we count people behind bars now serves to reinforce some of our country’s ugliest racial and political dynamics. In her report on a practice called “prison gerrymandering,” Haverty investigates what it means when our criminal justice system intrudes on the democratic process.

Read more and listen to Haverty’s podcast segment, published by Reveal, here.

Credit: Illustration elements taken from a drawing by Clifford K. Berryman, via the National Archives. Photo illustration by Michael I Schiller/Reveal

FIJ Grantee in North Carolina Brings Change to Sexual Assault Laws in the State

In October 2018, Carolina Public Press, a nonprofit news outlet, took a look at sexual assault conviction rates in North Carolina. What they found were outdated, ineffective laws that blurred the lines of consent and made it harder for offenders to be convicted.

“We looked at court data – a 4½-year data set – and analyzed it for the first time in North Carolina,” said Angie Newsome, founder and executive director of Carolina Public Press.

Her team found that fewer than one in four sexual assault defendants were convicted in the period they investigated, and fewer than a third of North Carolina’s 100 counties had sexual assault convictions. The state was the only one in the nation where a person could not revoke consent during a sexual encounter. The state’s law also determined that if a person was assaulted after drinking or doing drugs, it was not a crime.

“Those were the two aspects that led to the lack of convictions,” said Newsome.

Three days after the publication of the story, a North Carolina State House representative introduced legislation to fix the law. The reforms were approved in November of 2019. It was an outcome most journalists only dream of.

“This kind of impact is like lightning striking twice in the same spot,” said Newsome.


Gov. Roy Cooper signs a package of reforms to NC sexual assault laws Thursday afternoon, during a visit to a domestic violence shelter in Greensboro, as supporters of the legislation look on. Kate Martin / Carolina Public Press

A Look Back at Our Grantees’ Stories from 2019

It all starts with our grantees – the reporters and investigative journalists who commit their lives to uncovering, unraveling and documenting the stories that impact the world most. From migrant abuse at the border to the Flint, Michigan, water crisis and beyond, our grantees reported on a diverse array of issues in 2019. Below, we give you a breakdown of the issues our grantees covered last year and some examples of their work.

In Massachusetts, FIJ grantee Shawn Musgrave documented prosecutorial misconduct and evidence tampering in drug offense cases for Reason Magazine, which resulted in the state having to throw out more than 47,000 convictions. And in Flint, Michigan, grantees Abby Ellis and Kayla Ruble investigated and uncovered the extent of a deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreak during the water crisis, and how city officials failed to identify and address it. Their documentary titled “Flint’s Deadly Water,” was released by Frontline.

Our grantees also focused heavily on issues affecting the environment. In Washington state, John Stang documented how environmental groups are attempting to hold the U.S. Navy accountable after their dismantling of two decommissioned aircraft carriers left tons of toxic, copper-laden debris in Puget Sound. According to Stang’s reporting for Cascadia Magazine, environmental groups warn that the toxins left by the Navy could have deadly effects on the salmon population there. And in an isolated national refuge in Alaska, Jane Kay and photographer Ash Adams explored the impact of a Trump administration-approved road that could have a devastating effect on the wildlife and people living there in an article for Reveal.

Covering topics from corruption to women’s rights to police abuse, our grantees showed incredible commitment to journalism in 2019. The stories highlighted here, as well as the 39 other investigations completed by our grantees last year, can all be found on our website under “Grantees Work.”

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)

Reporter and FIJ grantee Rachel Nielsen investigated the complaints of foster parents in Washington state who say government caseworkers have created a culture of fear. The foster parents say they are being intimidated by state officials over trivial issues. State officials have held two meetings with groups of foster parents, but there have been no changes, according to records obtained by InvestigateWest under the Public Records Act.

InvestigateWest’s legal counsel, Kathy George, obtained more than 3,000 pages of records needed to complete this investigation. The state Department of Children, Youth and Families had improperly withheld the records for 16 months.

Read Nielsen’s entire story for InvestigateWest here.

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

For more than 12 years, Washington State Patrol troopers have been searching drivers from minority communities, particularly Native Americans, five times more often than whites, FIJ grantees Jason Buch and Joy Borkholder,  report for InvestigateWest.

Their investigation also found that although there is a state law requiring that officers file reports on the race of drivers they stop, state troopers have done this only three times in the last 15 years.

For many people from communities of color in Washington State, Buch and Borkholder’s findings showed statistically what they have experienced 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