2015 The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Large Newsroom winner

Missed Signs, Fatal Consequences

How Texas Missed Deadly Patterns and Key Pieces of Information that Could Have Helped Protect Vulnerable Children

Eric Dexheimer, Andrea Ball, Jeremy Schwartz, Laura Skelding, Kelly West, Andrew Chavez, Gabrielle Muñoz, Eric Webb, Christian McDonald

Austin American-Statesman

The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Large Newsroom


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About the Project

For years, the State of Texas had kept records detailing the circumstances of child abuse deaths. But no one — not the state, not child advocates, not other media — had analyzed those 800 records to look for trends, patterns and other red flags that could help prevent such deaths. So the American-Statesman did it.

The documents were available only as PDFs, with no data to support them. We created our own database, into which reporters entered key information from the documents: ages, dates, counties, causes of death, previous visits by child protective services, criminal charges, substance abuse, etc. We also uploaded the PDFs into DocumentCloud for searching and analysis. The database allowed reporters find and research trends, and allowed data editors to sort the information into reader-friendly, information packed graphics, charts and maps to complement the story.

That information revealed disturbing trends in child abuse deaths. Perhaps most alarming was that about half of the children abused or neglected to death were visited by CPS at least once before the death. In nearly 20 percent of the cases, the agency had seen the family at least three times. In 12 instances, CPS had seen the family 10 or more times. CPS had contact with one family more than 20 times before the child died. Reporting also revealed an additional 655 child abuse-related fatalities were never made public, even though the department confirmed that those children had been mistreated prior to their deaths. The law has since been changed to make those records public.

Using the trends found in the data as a guide, reporters, photographers and videographers were able to find some of these families to illustrate the statistics with human faces and stories. A data explorer was created so readers can explore the data on their own, with waypoints added to highlight the trends we found in our reporting. The data is available for download. The online presentation uses the DocumentCloud API to link to individual reports and other source material. Readers can click on a child’s name to reach the documents about that child’s life and death.

All of this was brought together in a cohesive, comprehensive online package that provides multimedia and data visualization in context with each facet of the overall story, built on a responsive platform for phone, tablet and desktop sites, alike.