It began with a precisely calibrated, powerful-yet-measured push on social media. A week before the launch, the Miami Herald tweeted and posted to Facbook, at regular intervals, a video trailer and 15 sobering case studies of government ineptitude and disgraceful parenting, creating a wave of interest and anticipation.
It ended with a live-streamed town hall meeting that drew a packed house to the Miami Herald’s headquarters.
Its heart and soul was an online database bristling with information and documentation. The responsive digital presentation was clean and marvelously functional, as fluid and seamless on smartphone and tablet as it was on the desktop.
This was Innocents Lost, the Miami Herald’s careful, exhaustive analysis of six years of Florida child deaths by neglect or abuse in families that had already been on the radar of the Department of Children & Families. Its impact has been dramatic – tens of millions of new dollars for child protection and a rewrite of the state’s nonsensical child welfare statutes, as well as a commitment at last from the state to truly attempt to protect Florida’s most vulnerable children. This from a Legislature that just last year slashed $100 million in funding for DCF. We attribute the series’ power and influence to old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting, elevated and amplified through the use of every platform at our disposal.
Innocents Lost was an investigative project for the digital age.
Although the Herald has exposed DCF bungling for years, work on Innocents Lost began in earnest in late spring 2013 after Florida’s latest string of depressing and preventable child deaths. The details of some are simply astonishing. Four-month-old Cameron Kroot was run over and killed as his parents engaged in a sledgehammer- and crowbar-swinging melee. Two-year-old Shaiunna Hare died when the pet python belonging to her pill-gobbling mother slithered from its aquarium while adult caretakers dozed through the night.
We wanted to tell every child’s story, not just focus on the outlandish cases. But the number of child deaths we uncovered was overwhelming – 477. That was far more than anticipated – and hundreds more deaths “with priors” than the state had reported. (At some point, as the numbers swelled, Florida had simply stopped counting.) It took a year of record-gathering, data-entering and reporting across the length and breadth of the state by reporters Carol Marbin Miller and Audra D.S. Burch and videographer Emily Michot to put it all together.
Transforming a spreadsheet of numbers and notations into something user-friendly was the task of data visualization specialist Lazaro Gamio. His creation provides effortless navigation between stories, videos and database. When a child is named in a story, readers can click through to that child’s individual saga – told at story length and with all relevant documents (death review, police report, autopsy, related articles) attached.
When data is organized in logical fashion, it tells a compelling story and can forge a path to real solutions. Laz’s database and Carol’s and Audra’s underlying spreadsheet are like a bright, flashing neon arrow pointing to the root cause of Florida’s epidemic of child deaths: parental drug abuse. Yet, as the Herald reported, the state has been reducing dollars for drug rehabilitation programs. And it has followed a policy of not forcing parents hooked on drugs to even take drug tests, and not forcing parents who agreed to take said drug tests and flunked to get clean as a condition of keeping their kids.
Even before the project was published, reaction was profound. (We filed three public records lawsuits and wrote several advance stories. Florida leaders knew what was coming.) The state’s child welfare secretary was ousted and replaced with a reform-minded interim boss. To try to preempt the project’s impact, the DCF chief and governor began popping up around the state, proposing an increase in money for child-protective investigators. Based on the pre-publication social media work alone, TV stations asked for and were granted permission to interview the reporters and broadcast Emily’s videos. Both a Miami TV station and MSNBC carried her video story in its entirety.
After the launch in the midst of the legislative session, things really began to happen. The head of the Senate’s child welfare committee ordered copies of the 16-page Day One print section for every member of her chamber. Two national networks requested the database so they could fashion their own stories in the future. DCF didn’t ask, but it copied and pasted scores of database entries so they could do their own analysis and check our numbers – or so we learned through our public records requests. Not one fact or interpretation was challenged. Several lawmakers invoked the database’s damning findings as they voted for a $44.5 million increase in child welfare funding and rewrote the state’s child welfare statutes. That rewrite will improve investigative techniques, increase transparency – the records we had to sue over will henceforth be posted online – and declare, unequivocally, that the safety of the child trumps the rights of abusive and neglectful parents.
It is not enough. The Herald’s reporting continues. The beauty of a digital project is that it is never done, that it can be constantly curated and updated.