Grantee investigations of youth facilities in two states prompt reform

Investigations by Fund for Investigative Journalism grantees about youth homes in Idaho and Louisiana have led to changes and sparked calls for reform of the troubled field.

In Idaho, a home for at-risk teenage girls closed in February after months of reporting by InvestigateWest, with support from the Fund. Reporter Wilson Criscione documented allegations of serious wrongdoing, including rape, assault and the use of forbidden restraints on minors. InvestigateWest reported that state oversight was lax: Emails obtained through open-records requests showed that officials did not follow up on issues uncovered in InvestigateWest’s reporting and instead insisted that all problems had been addressed. Officials at the youth home, Cornerstone Cottage, fired whistleblower staff who had alerted the state to dangers at the facility. After InvestigateWest’s reporting, Washington State’s child-welfare agency ended its contract with the facility, and Cornerstone Cottage finally closed a few months later. Idaho legislators said they plan to seek changes to improve care for troubled and traumatized children. 

Meanwhile, in Louisiana, the state ended its contract to house incarcerated girls at Ware Youth Center after an investigation supported by the Fund uncovered allegations of serious misconduct, including multiple rapes and other physical abuse. A New York Times report published in partnership with the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism was based on thousands of pages of state records and court documents and interviews with more than 100 people who were held at Ware or worked there. Residents described being sexually abused by staff members; 30 employees were identified as having sexually abused children at Ware. Three children have died by suicide at facility since 2017. Advocates said the state’s decision to move girls out of Ware was long overdue. “We breathe a collective sigh of relief,” Renard Bridgewater said in a statement issued by the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights. “The history of abuse, trauma and avoidable deaths suffered by incarcerated youth for years at Ware has been well documented and will thankfully end at this facility because of this decision.”

The investigations of Cornerstone Cottage in Idaho and Ware in Louisiana are two of several projects the Fund has supported over the last several years that exposed wrongdoing and injustice in child-welfare and juvenile-justice systems. The Fund also hosted a webinar with tips and resources on covering child welfare issues, featuring leading reporters in the field.