Six reporting lessons I learned while investigating abuse in a California group home

Published on
January 3, 2024

I opened the email and felt my stomach grow cold. Attached to the message was a series of disturbing images. The first was of a woman in her mid-40s, a dark blue bruise spread beneath her left eye. Her mouth hung open as she gazed hauntingly into the camera. The next was a closeup of the bruise, revealing a raised purple welt at its center. Another image showed the wall of a bedroom marked with dents and gaping holes through the sheetrock.

This was in April 2022. The woman in the photos was Katrina Turner. She’s nonverbal and developmentally disabled. She lived at the time in a special kind of group home for people with profound disabilities who need a lot of specialized care. Her parents, Pat Turner and Elaine Sheffer, had reached out to me a month earlier. They were interested in sharing Katrina’s life story — about the mistreatment she’d experienced in state institutions and group homes. When we first met they told me that for the past year Katrina had been living in a highly regulated group home, and that the abuse was in her past.

Those photos of Katrina’s black eye shattered that sense of safety. An employee at the home — who later became a whistleblower in my series — had sent them to Pat and Elaine privately. The employee believed that Katrina was currently experiencing abuse, including being locked in her room and being allowed to injure herself by smashing her head against the walls of her bedroom.

Opening that email was the moment I realized the project I had taken on was about to become something else entirely. And I wasn’t sure if I was prepared. 

Katrina and her family’s trauma was now unfolding in real time. The story took on a new sense of urgency, and a different kind of emotional weight. And the new allegations against Katrina’s group home would require an intense investigation. I could feel the urgency and complexity of the project I’d undertaken expanding before my eyes. I pushed the doubt and trepidation aside, and dove in. I felt like it was my responsibility to tell this story, and potentially reveal systemic issues that are impacting the safety of Katrina and others like her.

Over the next year and a half, I spent dozens of hours interviewing Pat and Elaine, as well as whistleblowers, experts, and advocates. I submitted public records requests to multiple state agencies, and reviewed thousands of pages of documents. And I analyzed data sets that covered thousands of incident reports to understand the abuse rates in homes for people with developmental disabilities. In the end, my investigation uncovered evidence implicating a national health care organization in the abuse, and showed major failings by regulatory agencies. My series, “Without a Voice,” aired on KALW’s Crosscurrents in August 2023, and a condensed version will air on KQED’s The California Report in December. 

The journey certainly wasn’t smooth. When I began, I was a freelance journalist working with a small public radio station. They didn’t have the resources to support a large enterprise reporting project, and I didn’t really have experience working at that scale. 

As I thought about what lessons I wanted to share for this piece, I kept thinking about what I wish I’d known when I began, and how I would change my approach for next time. Whether you’re a freelance reporter or part of a small team, I hope that the lessons I learned along the way can help you be successful on your own project. 

How to approach a complex project as an independent journalist

As you begin planning out your project, here’s the approach I would recommend: Take inventory of your resources. Then, scale the scope of your project and expectations accordingly, and find creative ways to increase your capacity. 

This means really taking stock of what you have at your disposal, and thinking about what a realistic outcome for the project might be. I’ve broken down the resources I think about into the following categories, ordered from least to most obvious:

1. Keep your emotional capacity in mind.

It’s often overlooked, but when working on stories involving victims of trauma it’s important to be aware of the emotional burden you take on as a journalist. According to the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma80% to 100% of journalists are exposed to trauma, and many journalists underestimate the impact of work-related traumatic events. 

In my experience, emotional capacity is something that is shared across groups. Larger teams have more people who can carry the weight of responsibility for the story and their sources. When you’re working solo, that pressure becomes acute.

It’s something I didn’t really take into account when I began the project. And, due to that, I came very close to hitting burnout several times. There are, however, ways to mitigate this emotional burden and increase your own resilience. First, consider the other factors in your life that may have an effect on your emotional capacity. As much as possible, ensure that you’re taking care of your physical and emotional needs outside of the project. Second, talk regularly with trusted colleagues and loved ones who will allow you to vent and decompress, especially after difficult moments in the project. And finally, establish healthy boundaries with your sources, and do your best to manage their expectations from the beginning. Communicate up front what a realistic outcome from the project might be. 

2. Find your force multipliers.

So much knowledge and insight is generated through dialogue and collaboration. Having other people’s brains available is like a force multiplier for your own ideas. So, as a solo journalist attempting a complex investigation, it’s important to identify the critical points in your process and seek out additional perspectives.

For myself, those critical points were after key interviews, after synthesizing large amounts of information or data, and after drafts of stories. My editor was of course a key perspective, but I also needed the more casual energy of peers. I talked with other journalist friends, my partner, and friends outside the field entirely to get their perspectives on what I’d been finding.

In order to make the most of my own mental capacity, I also used free and low-cost tools that allowed me to be more effective and efficient. For example, I used Pinpoint from Google’s Journalist Studio, which turned my entire trove of documents (thousands of pages) into a searchable database. I used the spreadsheet tool Airtable to create timelines, production schedules, and track sources as well as critical pieces of information. And, after receiving training from the Center, I was able to use RStudio — another free tool — to do basic data analysis on the large datasets I’d received from my public records requests. 

3. Seek out expertise and mentors.

As I mentioned before, I did not have experience doing investigative journalism at this scale prior to beginning this series. With that in mind, I made a few key decisions that I think benefited me greatly through the process. 

First, I sought out an environment in which I could be supported with tools, training, and guidance. That was the Center for Health Journalism Data Fellowship. I knew that the kind of story I was reporting needed to have a data component to it. And, though I’d worked with data in the past, applying those skills to an investigation was entirely different.

Second, I leveraged my personal network as well as CHJ fellow to help fill in some of the blanks in my understanding of the process. I reached out to seasoned investigative journalists who had spoken during our training sessions, and asked them questions about my specific project. I received valuable insights and suggestions, as well as the assurance that I was on the right track.

Finally, while this might seem counterintuitive, I lowered my expectations. When you’re stretching yourself beyond your current capacity, striving for perfection can be incredibly demotivating. By easing my own standards, I actually accomplished far more than if I’d kept them rigid.

4. Manage your energy.

It’s instinctive to keep pushing past your limits for the sake of following your story. There’s certainly an aspect of self-sacrifice that is often encouraged in our line of work. But the reality is that burnout is no one’s friend — not yours, not the story’s. By managing your own energy and stopping when you need to, you are taking care of your own needs and ensuring you have the capacity to do your best work in a sustainable way.

I live with a chronic illness. When it flares up, it can cause pain and completely sap my energy. I have to be acutely aware of my own limits in order to continue doing this work, but cultivating that awareness is a practice that I believe can benefit anyone.

5. Manage your time.

If you’re just one person or a small team, get realistic about the amount of time you can commit each week to your project. This also means scaling down the scope of the reporting to fit into those time constraints.

As a freelance journalist, I needed to maintain an income by working on other projects throughout my time reporting “Without a Voice.” As a result, some of my grand plans to analyze and investigate the entire state developmental disability system had to be pared down in scope to focus on this individual case at a regional level. 

6. Manage your budget. 

How much money are you able to put towards your investigation? How much of that can be provided by your organization? 

For myself, the answer was very little. This meant that the tools I used needed to be mostly free, travel was limited to day trips, and I needed to seek out additional sources of funding to supplement my costs. 

I’ll leave you with this takeaway: While most enterprise level investigative reporting is undertaken by larger organizations, it is possible to do this work at a smaller scale and still achieve impact. Individuals and smaller teams can do that by staying mindful of their capacity and finding creative ways to boost it at critical junctures.