Grantee Stories

Poisons in Washington State’s Puget Sound

In 2017, the U.S. Navy scraped the hull of the decommissioned aircraft carrier USS Independence directly into Puget Sound, dumping tons of toxic, copper-laden debris into Sinclair Inlet near Bremerton, Washington. Now environmental groups, the Suquamish Tribe and the state of Washington seek to hold the Navy responsible for what they say is an “egregious violation” of water quality laws that could harm wild salmon. Cascadia Magazine investigates.

Photo: The USS Kitty Hawk, by Nia Martin 

First Amendment and Open-Records Laws May Limit California’s New Privacy Law

A Los Angeles woman who alleges that her doctor raped her at home five years ago has tried in vain to get “people search” sites such as MyLife and Spokeo to stop posting her address, to no avail.

The California Consumer Privacy Act, a statute approved last year and scheduled to become law in January 2020, could help victims like her. But even this groundbreaking legislation may not force the sites to delete personal data. The law’s impact is apparently limited by the First Amendment and open-records statutes, the San Francisco Public Press reports.

Photo by Taskin Ashiq on Unsplash

The Impact of Fracking Boom in Ohio: Who’s Listening

Julie Grant, with The Allegheny Front, a Pittsburgh-based public media news outlet, examined how Ohio agencies are reacting when residents, landowners, and activists raise concerns about the oil and gas industry in their communities. Grant produced Who’s Listening, a 4-part public radio and online package for stations in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

Story 1: Some Ohio Citizens Who Complained About Oil and Gas Feel “Abandoned” by the State

Story 2: Ohio Law Favors Energy Development Over Private Property Rights

Story 3: Citizens Stepped in to Protect Water When Ohio Lawmakers Did Not

Story 4: Health Problems Abound Near Oil and Gas Wells in Ohio

Patrick Hunkler and Jean Backs get drinking water for their house from spring water collected in this cistern. They are concerned that fracking could affect their water. Photo: Julie Grant

California won’t prosecute all violators of data-privacy law

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra says his office is ill-equipped to prosecute violations of the state’s landmark data-privacy law, which takes effect in January, the San Francisco Public Press reported. Only a handful of the most egregious cases will be prosecuted per year. Instead, he wants aggrieved consumers to take violators to court on their own. The story was the third part in a series on data privacy, “Your Data, Their Dollars,” online and in print editions of the Public Press this year.

Stacey Schesser, supervising deputy attorney general on consumer protection, testifying at a state Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in April in support of Senate Bill 561, which would give consumers the power to sue companies under the California Consumer Privacy Act. At left is committee chair Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, Democrat from Santa Barbara, who sponsored the bill. Photo via California Senate

Is New York State’s Justice Center Just?

The Justice Center for the Protection of People With Special Needs investigates abuse and neglect in New York State facilities. But Alisa Partlan and Hella Winston found out the agency’s work procedures may be causing more harm to both residents and caregivers. They describe the Center’s flawed practices in their investigation Is the Justice Center just? published by City & State New York.

 

Photo by Supawadee56/Shutterstock

Guards and Medics Prey on Women Prisoners at LA County Jail

At the Los Angeles County Century regional detention facility for women, former and current inmates say prison deputies submit prisoners to a range of sexual abuse acts—from overt assault to more subtle misconduct.   A recent federal audit found the jail, located in Lynwood, a small city adjacent to Compton and Watts, to be in violation of federal sexual safety laws, and found evidence of “serious and troubling allegations of sexual abuse and sexual harassment.”

But in her story in The Guardian, The California Jail where Women Say Guards and Medics Preyed on them, which was also published by WitnessLA,  Lauren Lee White, describes an even more toxic abusive culture where guards and other officials promote subtler encounters and behavior: Prisoners who flirt get extra food, and others who engage in exhibitionism get more time outside their cells.  This behavior is harder to track than overt sexual assaults.

Michele Infante says she was raped at Century regional detention facility in 2011. Photograph: Tobin Yelland

Pulitzer Prize for book on fracking in Appalachia

Congratulations to Eliza Griswold, who has won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction for her book Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America. She received an FIJ grant to help her reporting on the health, economic and political costs that follow in the footsteps of the American fracking boom.

The Pulitzer committee called the book “A classic American story, grippingly told, of an Appalachian family struggling to retain its middle class status in the shadow of destruction wreaked by corporate oil fracking.”

Head Count: How many people died during Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico?

Radio Ambulante episode “Head Count” goes behind the scenes in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria hit the island on September 20, 2017. Ambulante’s reporters went to court to get the Puerto Rico government to release the mortality data.  The program brings to light how hundreds of victims, mostly elderly, died, not during the hurricane, but in the six months after the storm.

The radio program was underwritten by the Ford Foundation, which sponsored the FIJ/Schuster Institute diversity fellowships.

Seeking Conviction: Justice elusive for NC sexual assault survivors

Justice is elusive for sexual assault survivors in North Carolina, according to Seeking Conviction, a  4 ½ year investigation of North Carolina court data by Carolina Public Press. The data project found that fewer than 1 in 4 sexual assault defendants in that time window were convicted, and that convictions were reached through plea deals and not through trials.

The multimedia, data-driven investigative series, also found that during the years monitored, more than a third of North Carolina’s 100 counties had zero sexual assault or reduced-charge convictions.

The low conviction rate may be due, in part, to two legal precedents in North Carolina. One says that it is not a crime to sexually assault someone who is incapacitated due to their own drinking or drug use. The other is unique to North Carolina, the only state in the nation where you cannot withdraw consent, meaning that if you change your mind after first giving consent, it is not considered a crime if you are then sexually assaulted.

Seeking Conviction, is a multi-part investigative reporting project that CPP led in collaboration with 10 other news media partners around North Carolina.

Samantha White survived a sexual assault when she was 16.  [Melissa Sue Gerrits/The Fayetteville Observer]

Texas has a big dam problem

For years, more than 7,000 small dams across Texas have gone unregulated or uninspected. Despite their size, many small dams are ticking time bombs, according to safety experts. And state data show that the rate of failure for these dams is increasing dramatically: Of the approximately 300 dam failures in Texas since 1910, half have occurred in the last nine years. The effects of climate change further compound the impact as increasing rainfall – particularly in the eastern half of the state – leaves more and more communities threatened.

In Dammed to Fail in the Texas Observer, Naveena Sadasivam traces the history of a burgeoning crisis, one fueled by this lack of regulatory oversight and political will on the part of the Texas Legislature.

In March 2016, floodwaters dug a 50-foot wide hole on the downstream end of this dam. Photo by Delos Dewayne Collins for the Texas Observer

In California, new legislation may disrupt the disruptors

In November, San Franciscans voted to amend their city charter to add data protection guidelines for city entities, contractors, businesses and individuals. Since then, city supervisors have introduced legislation to restrict or ban the use of most surveillance and facial recognition technology in the city. But the most controversial aspect proposes being able to use online services in San Francisco without providing any personal details.

Writing in the San Francisco Public Press, Andrew Stelzer explores the quickly evolving regulatory environment around digital privacy in California, and in particular looks at the proposed changes in San Francisco.

City leaders have made bold, but so far not very specific, claims about their ability to limit the personal-information free-for-all that is at the heart of the business model for data brokers, many startups, and other digital enterprises.

Those proposals are potentially disruptive to a tech industry that reaps riches from “disruption.” And critics warn that aggressive regulations could chase data mining companies out of San Francisco, or into the courts to battle regulators.

Illustration by Reid Brown for San Francisco Public Press

Trafficking documentary a finalist for Goldsmith Prize

Congratulations to Daffodil Altan and Andrés Cediel! Their FRONTLINE project “Trafficked in America” was a finalist for this year’s Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting

The story tells of Guatemalan teens forced to work on an Ohio egg farm, and exposes a criminal network that exploits undocumented minors, the companies that profit from forced labor, and the role of the U.S. Government.

The documentary originally aired in April, 2018, on PBS.

New investigations look deeper into deaths at ICE lockups

Investigative reporter Robin Urevich has added four stories to her series Deadly Detention at Capital & Main. The series reveals both the politics behind and the life inside Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers, and focuses on the often-preventable deaths that have occurred in ICE lockups.

Her most recent stories cover the suicide of 40-year-old Efrain de la Rosa at the Stewart Detention Center in Southwest Georgia last July, and the struggle to obtain the investigative documents that reveal how and why he died. These include a story on efforts by the private prison firm CoreCivic to convince the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to keep its investigation of de la Rosa’s death under wraps; a story on ICE’s most recent release of less-than-revealing reports on detention deaths; and a look at de la Rosa’s death and its eerie parallels to a death that occurred at the Stewart Detention Center a year earlier. 

Urevich has more stories in the works for this series, so stay tuned.

Illustration by Define Urban for Capital & Main

Sweeping group home reform falters in California

In 2010, California launched a pilot project to fix one of the most troubled aspects of the state’s foster care system: youth languishing in institutional group homes. They often struggle later in life with mental health issues, lower educational achievement and a higher risk of entering the criminal justice system. Plus, these youth are far more likely to exit foster care without a stable home.

The project showed striking success at first. In Los Angeles County, home to the largest county-run child welfare system in the country, youth exited institutions and became rooted in family homes. And the project saved the county more than $7 million. This success inspired a massive child welfare reform effort in the state. The ideas in the project also made their way to federal group home reform legislation in 2018.

But the larger promise of the project never arrived. Writing for The Chronicle of Social Change, Jeremy Loudenback looks at how California’s group home reforms deteriorated and what lies ahead for youth heading into adulthood after institutionalization.

Jacob McCleary spent his high school years in a series of group homes. Now he is out. Photo by Jeremy Loudenback

Stories of sexual assault by CBP agents against migrants

In July 2016, two Guatemalan sisters left their small town and headed to the United States. They were fleeing growing insecurity and were eager to see their mother, who had moved to the US over a decade earlier.

After crossing the border, the sisters were detained by two Border Patrol agents and taken to a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) station in Presidio, Texas. There, according to their testimony, a Border Patrol agent sexually assaulted them. In 2018, the younger sister – a minor at the time of the alleged abuse – sued the United States.

FIJ grant recipient and Radio Ambulante editor Silvia Viñas has been following this story and the legal case behind it for over a year. She found that complaints of sexual abuse by CBP agents are not isolated and outnumber internal investigations. And she discovered that although the agency claims to have a zero tolerance policy for sexual abuse and assault, it keeps details about this policy and its attempts to tackle the issue in the dark.

Business districts target the homeless in Denver

FIJ grant recipient Rob Waters looked at the growing influence of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) in cities across the country, and how they are used to restrict homeless people from downtown areas. His investigative feature for Next City, No Place Left to Go: Business Districts Keep Homeless Populations on the Move, focused on Denver, where downtown business interests have long influenced development and management of the urban core. Redevelopment projects and “slum clearance” came first, followed now by the creation of BIDs, which collect property assessments and manage key aspects of public space. 

Waters reports that an industry has grown up around BIDs, including contractors that provide private security “ambassadors” to patrol business districts. Some use a proprietary phone app that allows “ambassadors” to set up a Persons of Interest Database with entries for “panhandler, street performer, vendor, homeless individual.”

In an earlier story in San Francisco Public Press, Waters looked at a report on California BIDs by law students at UC Berkeley School of Law.

In response to an “urban camping” ban passed by the Denver city council, police broke up an encampment of people experiencing homelessness near Coors Field. Photo by Rob Waters

Rats, roaches, bedbugs lead to Golden Mike Award

Rina Palta, an FIJ grant recipient and correspondent on the investigative team at KPCC radio, has won a Golden Mike Award for Best Investigative Reporting from the Radio and TV News Association of Southern California.

Her story, Rats, roaches, bedbugs, mold: Why thousands of LA’s homeless shelter beds sit empty each night, led the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to pass a new ordinance creating uniform standards for homeless shelters in the county.

Palta’s initial FIJ-funded story revealed a patchwork oversight system that allowed safety and sanitation problems in homeless shelters – shelters usually run by non-profit and faith groups, but partially funded by the county.  While there are around 43,000 homeless people in L.A., only 16,000 shelter beds are available. Even so, shelters funded by the county’s Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority had only a 78-percent utilization rate, well below the 90 percent required by their contracts. Homeless people interviewed by Palta said that the sanitation and safety issues were main reasons they refused to stay in the shelters.

Craig Aslin, originally from Virginia, stays in a tent in Hollywood, California. Photo by Susanica Tam for KPCC

47,000 convictions dismissed so far in Massachusetts drug lab scandal

Over the last two years, the state of Massachusetts has dismissed 47,000 drug convictions and guilty pleas due to two tampering scandals involving drug lab chemists. Many more convictions are likely to be dismissed, with the total expected to exceed 50,000.

While the first scandal received more attention, mainly due to it being first and taking place in Boston, the second, centering on chemist Sonja Farak, may be worse, says FIJ grant recipient Shawn Musgrave. In a story for Reason, he writes that Farak’s crimes were compounded by prosecutorial misconduct that the state’s top court called “the deceptive withholding of exculpatory evidence by members of the Attorney General’s office.”

Because of the combined tampering and prosecutor misconduct, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court dismissed thousands of cases Farak may never have even touched, including every conviction based on evidence processed at her lab from 2009 to the day of her arrest in 2013.

Musgrave’s story reconstructs both scandals, and questions why a handful of prosecutors presided over one of the worst criminal justice failures in recent Massachusetts memory.

Photo illustration by Reason.