Five hard lessons I learned from reporting on children without parents

Published on
June 7, 2016

My reporting project for the 2015 National Fellowship started out as a look into what happens to children who are orphaned because of their parents’ premature deaths, and the role played by health disparities in causing those deaths. But after weeks of reporting and talking to experts across Georgia and the country, I realized the data were too sparse — in fact, almost nonexistent. I then changed the focus to look at what happens to children who end up losing parents not only because of the death of a parent but also who lose parents to mental illness, addiction, incarceration or parental inability to care for a child.

In millions of instances across the country each year, grandparents and other relatives step in to take care of these children. I discovered that the story of children who have suffered abuse, trauma and neglect could be told from the perspective of the new families they end up in. I ended up interviewing dozens and dozens of grandparents and other kin over the course of four months as well as talking to countless public officials. I attended many public hearings and talked to state legislators in Georgia who were working to address many issues that children face when they become separated from their families. The separation itself is an adverse childhood event, and typically, I learned, many had suffered many other adverse childhood events before their separation from parents.

Here are some things I learned that I hope might be helpful to others who report on the health, educational and emotional needs of vulnerable children.

1. Be skeptical of everything you hear, from everyone. Child well-being is a dicey issue to cover. Reporters are limited because access to the subjects we are covering — children — is limited. We gain access through the adults taking care of them, and their experiences may be very different from the children’s experiences. It is tempting to be sympathetic with the adults taking care of vulnerable children. The stories they tell are sad, hard to hear and moving. It is important to ask specific questions of them. That means about money, about personal issues that gave rise to the problem at hand, and sometimes intimate details of a person’s life. You must be prepared to ask for documentation. You must check the veracity of everything you hear. You must go into their neighborhoods and homes and spend a lot of time with them.

The same is true when you are interviewing county, state or other government officials who look out for the welfare of children. Often, the agencies they oversee are understaffed and under-financed. Often, the people who work in the agencies are tired and overworked, just like everyone else. Their hearts may be in the absolute kindest, best place in the world, but do not assume that. Ask for the numbers. Analyze the numbers. If they don’t match, go back again and again.

2. Do as much in-person interviewing as possible. This will mean hanging out in scary areas of town sometimes. It will mean adjusting your schedule to others’ schedules. It will take more time. It will not be fun. Nothing, however, takes the place of being there to get a sense of how children live. There are several reasons to do this. First, remember that your true subjects — the children — cannot give you the facts. Others are speaking for them. You must observe how they live. You must get a sense of whether the people whose care they are in are authentically representing their situations. Second, you must bridge the gap between middle-class journalist and those who live with fewer means.

3. Give firm deadlines to communications staff at public agencies. Hold them accountable. I experienced significant delays because some communications staff members did not respond when they said they were going to. I was not prepared for this. As someone who has worked on the other side — as a communications director — I never would have imagined that PIOs can deflect and postpone as frequently as some can. I was not firm enough in several instances. As a result, I experienced many, many delays.

4. Search for the truth, but remember that you are not an advocate. When it comes to children who have been abused, neglected and traumatized, it is only natural that you would want to help them. Remember that your reporting will help them the most. You are not there to solve their immediate problems. Yes, anyone would bring food to a hungry family, and of course we would also intervene if we see a child being harmed or abused. The lines get blurry. You will hear stories that make you cry and that hurt your heart. It is very important to know that you are not a social worker and that you cannot fix complicated social problems, many of which have their foundation in structural issues of society. As a journalist, you are shining light on an issue that needs light. That is your job. If you do it right, and if you are lucky, your reporting may make a difference.

5. When covering tough topics such as this, have a strong, supportive network in place — and a plan for self-care. Anyone who works in child welfare — be they a juvenile judge, a court-appointed special advocate, social worker — knows a support system is essential. Journalists need to do the same. It helps to have a great, understanding editor, as I did. Beyond that, however, it is also important to manage the stress of emotionally draining stories so that you can do your best work. That can be whatever works best for you — yoga, prayer, worship, exercise — or a combination. An understanding circle of friends is helpful, too.

Have a plan of how not to bring this home, however. The work will begin to consume you. The more stories you hear, the sadder you can become — or you can start to feel numb. That is not good, either. You need to listen to every story you hear as if it is the first story you have heard, and you need to maintain all the journalistic rigor, wonder and integrity you had at the outset. Ask the specifics. See the numbers. Don’t get lazy. To do that, you need to take care of yourself along the way.