Each year, Florida courts send thousands of patients to live in state-funded mental hospitals. They go because they are seriously ill, mentally broken and potentially dangerous. They need round-the-clock care to avoid hurting themselves or someone else.
But in Florida, the care and treatment that patients and their families – and society – count on has given way to state-run chaos. Over the past six years, Florida has tried to run these hospitals on the cheap, quietly stripping them of $100 million in funding in order to plug holes in more politically popular programs. The result: mental patients are warehoused, cared for by startling few trained workers, and living in a violent environment that has led to the death and injury of patients and staff.
And the state has kept it all secret.
Until the Tampa Bay Times and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune teamed up to publish: “Insane. Invisible. In danger.”
This project is unique by its purest definition. This one-of-kind, Pulitzer-winning series brought together news organizations of different sizes in different markets and then meshed their cultures and talents to create journalism that was powerful and innovative.
It took more than 18 months for reporters from the two newsrooms to scale a wall of secrecy, review and translate millions of files of data and comb through thousands of pages of police, court and personnel records to find the truth.
The result was a devastating series chronicling years of state-sponsored neglect that has led to a doubling of violent attacks and injuries, and to the death of 15 people entrusted to the state’s care.
Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature kept cutting mental health resources even when violence spiraled out of control and patients began killing themselves and each other. And it continued as the hospitals rotted from within, doors literally falling off the hinges, rats creeping into beds at night, patients forced to forage through garbage cans to get enough food.
In the name of patient privacy, government officials tried to hide the details of what was happening inside the hospitals. It took months for the reporters to get the state to release the names of patients who had been ordered by courts into the state facilities. Then attorneys for the Department of Children and Families fought to deny reporters basic information about deaths and injuries in the facilities. They even refused to turn over the names of hospital workers who were criminally convicted for abusing the patients in their care.
When the files were released they were so heavily redacted and unreliable (the state claimed it had simply lost years’ worth of incident reports) that the newspapers built their own database of injuries by stitching together thousands of pages 911 dispatch records, police incident reports and medical examiner death investigations. Then the reporters set about the tedious work of sifting out the farfetched, unproven allegations and identifying each individual case where authorities recorded evidence of an assault or injury.
This months-long process generated the most comprehensive account ever taken of violent attacks and injuries in Florida’s mental asylums. It revealed that the state’s own tracking system has been undercounting the amount of violence by half.
The Times/Herald-Tribune series prompted an immediate call for emergency action. State Sen. Eleanor Sobel, chair of the committee that oversees DCF spending, has demanded a report from the agency on how it plans to reduce violent incidents. And she said “it’s necessary” that the state restore funding for state mental hospitals and hire more staff.
In the days after reporters presented their findings to the state, Gov. Scott ordered an audit of the state hospitals, including a review of staffing levels scrutinized by the Times/Herald-Tribune reporters. Later he called for $1.7 million in new security cameras and body alarms for staff who work with patients. The newspapers reported in March that state lawmakers proposed to increase funding for mental hospitals, adding as many as 160 new workers. The proposal awaits the governor’s signature.
In Washington, D.C. U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor entered the newspaper series into the Congressional Record during hearings on a sweeping mental health bill under consideration in the House. The series prompted her to offer amendments that would create a data base to track violence at mental hospitals and nullify state laws that currently keep investigative reports of such attacks secret, even to parents and families of patients who die in state custody.
The series has been mentioned in variety of industry publications, including Columbia Journalism Review, for the partnership of news organizations of different sizes because of a common DNA to do investigative journalism.
The collaborative spirit shows in the details. John Pendygraft’s haunting images and videos, along with Alexis Sanchez’s sophisticated design, created a cutting-edge digital project that allowed reporters to add installments and grow the storylines. Digital developers from the Times/Herald-Tribune worked together to create newspaper-branded display (as seen on TampaBay.com and on HeraldTribune.com).
The Times/Herald-Tribune series has brought unprecedented attention to the dark secrets of Florida’s mental hospitals. It has stirred action to provide better care and protection to those who are ill and must live in these facilities, and improved safety for those with the difficult jobs of working there. They all deserve better.