How Miami Herald reporters found the voices that brought series on abuses in Florida’s juvenile justice system to life
Several months into our Miami Herald juvenile justice series, “Fight Club,” we realized we had almost all of the ingredients for a pretty good project: 10 years of data from four state agencies, thousands of pages of investigative reports into misconduct, a good roadmap from scholars, retired administrators and other experts. We lacked one key element, though: the voices of children who had been affected by the system, and their parents.
Our investigation sprang from a tragic incident on Aug. 30, 2015. A 17-year-old detainee at the Miami-Dade Regional Juvenile Detention Center was savaged by more than a dozen other boys, and he died the next day. Our reporting of the incident suggested Elord Revolte’s beating may have been instigated by a lockup officer, and rewarded with a common vending machine pastry, a honey bun.
Our reporting confirmed that “honey-bunning” was a fairly common practice throughout the state, with its own jargon. A youth who angered a worker might have a “honey bun on his head,” or be the subject of a “bounty” or a “honey bun hit.” The victim of such a beating was said to have been “honey-bunned.” A youth who meted out such discipline was called a “honey bunner.”
We found a state juvenile justice system beset by widespread unnecessary and excessive force, rampant sexual misconduct, and a lack of adequate or timely medical care for those who were injured or ill. We also discovered it was surprisingly common for officers and youth workers to fail to report wrongdoing, or to render false accounts when they did report incidents.
Having recently completed a similarly ambitious project on Florida’s child welfare system, my colleague, Audra Burch, and I knew that the power of our reporting would depend largely on our ability to marshal the experiences of real families. Records are great, and sometimes they contain compelling quotes. But they are a poor substitute for sitting down with kids and parents, looking them in the eyes and asking probing questions. And, with a budget that likely would include at least a dozen stories, we knew that photos and videos would be an enormous problem, as well.
Our challenge was to identify and locate families in a closed system in which every document was heavily redacted, and then to persuade them to help us — a very difficult task considering our subjects were delinquent kids, some of them felons or sex offenders. In some cases, even agreeing to keep confidential the name of a youth was insufficient to convince a family to talk to us.
Our first move was to request from the state every single notice of intent to sue the Department of Juvenile Justice over the last decade. We took a few weeks to call every lawyer who sued DJJ, or threatened to sue. Some of the lawyers declined to return our calls. Others were quite helpful. A few of the lawyers sent us hundreds of pages of court discovery material, including, in a few cases, sworn statements and depositions. The depositions are not the same as an interview in which you can use all five senses, but they helped add color to stories, especially the verbatim transcripts. A few attorneys were extremely helpful, sending boxes of records, and also setting up interviews with parents and kids.
"Our challenge was to identify and locate families in a closed system in which every document was heavily redacted, and then to persuade them to help us — a very difficult task considering our subjects were delinquent kids, some of them felons or sex offenders. In some cases, even agreeing to keep confidential the name of a youth was insufficient to convince a family to talk to us."
One recurring problem involved finding these kids once we knew who they were. A girl who was the subject of a stunning video we were going to use — the video shows a worker slamming the girl to the floor without provocation, and then sitting on her for a half-hour — went homeless just before her attorney tried to reach her on our behalf. We were told that a young man who, in his teens, had been the subject of banned “pain compliance” restraint techniques had gone to work on an Alaska oil rig, and couldn’t be reached. Several of the youths we featured are now in an adult prison or jail. We were able to interview a few by telephone — and one agreed to be interviewed in his Polk County jail. But many others remained out of reach.
The single best resource for us were the public defender’s offices in our area. The PD’s offices represent the lion’s share of kids in delinquency court, and they talk regularly with their clients. In Fort Lauderdale, the head of the juvenile unit set up several interviews for us, and showed up at most of them to make their clients feel comfortable. Perhaps our best interview occurred at the PD’s office, where we showed a father a video we obtained of his adoptive son being beaten by a lockup officer. The PD in Miami arranged for us to interview a client at the Miami adult jail. We agreed to have the lawyer and his supervisor present to oversee the interview and to alleviate their concern that we would ask the youth about his then-pending adult charges.
But we still needed to identify some of the youths who were involved in a handful of our most important cases. That required getting help from some insiders. Once we knew who the kids were, we could then go through their lawyers or other advocates to get an introduction. It was our experience that we had better luck when we weren’t cold-calling families.
It was almost never easy, even when we knew who the kids were.
One of the hardest families to convince was that of Elord Revolte, the youth whose death sparked our investigation. We had spoken with Elord’s father, very briefly, after Elord’s death in August 2015. But after Enoch Revolte hired a tort lawyer, our access evaporated. That was a problem for us, as we were planning to wrap our first mainbar — a story that grew to be more than 200 inches — inside Elord’s case.
Our solution was to enlist an extremely well-regarded activist in the Haitian community to speak to Elord’s father on our behalf. The community activist wanted to help. She spoke with Enoch Revolte a dozen times over several months. She called us one morning with Enoch Revolte on conference call. At her urging, he had gathered enough courage to defy his own lawyer and talk about his son. The interview was significant. Revolte’s quote was the first we used in our most important story, and his words were sprinkled throughout the piece. We broke the news to him that his son’s killers would not be brought to justice, as prosecutors had declined to file charges. His emotional response was key to telling his son's story — and our investigation, as a whole.
“They treated my child worse than a dog,” Revolte told us. “My child wasn’t a dog. My son deserves justice.”
The latter quote proved to be crucial: An overarching theme for us was the juvenile justice system’s serious lack of accountability. That a youth could be punched, kicked and stomped to death in front of surveillance cameras — and, some of the youths said, at the urging of an officer — with no one being held to account became a metaphor for our entire series.
Several of the battles didn’t go our way. When we discovered that an intellectually disabled girl had been impregnated by a worker at a Panhandle forensic facility, we called her aunt and guardian. Over three phone calls, the aunt complained bitterly about how a reporter in North Florida had refused to write the story some months earlier. We told her we badly wanted to write about the girl, and, of course, offered to not identify the girl. For reasons we never knew, the aunt stopped returning our calls. In another case, the mom of a rape victim returned our calls and said she was eager to talk. She apparently changed her mind, and stopped picking up the phone. I don’t know how to convince folks like that. We spent hours talking about it, but, eventually, we just had to give up.
Having an intermediary who believes in your mission helps.
Among the families we quoted in the series, the best interviews, and the most cooperative subjects involved people whose lawyers or advocates were on our side. When a lawyer set up the interview, and agreed to be there, that seemed to improve our chances greatly. And there was no downside: the lawyers never dictated the direction of the interview or declared a question off-limits — except when it pertained to a pending criminal case.
By the time we were prepared to publish, we had filled out our dance card pretty well, including cases in which we had reports, surveillance videos and in-depth, videotaped interviews with kids or their parents. If the series is a success — and there already are credible efforts underway to change state law or reform the state agency — the voices of the families we found will be a big part of the reason why.
Read Carol Marbin Miller's fellowship series "Fight Club" here.