Monday, December 4, 2017

Reporting on Illinois group home abuse wins award

Barbara Chyette holds a photo of her brother Lauren Braun, who choked to death on a hamburger on a supervised group home outing in 2014. He had no teeth and was unable to eat regular food unless it was cut into tiny pieces. Photo by John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune

By Louise Kinross

'Suffering in Secret,' a Chicago Tribune investigation into the abuse and neglect of disabled adults in 3,000 state-licensed group homes in Illinois, won first prize in the 2017 Katherine Schneider Journalism Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability.

The international contest, by the National Center on Disability and Journalism at Arizona State University, is dedicated to recognizing excellence in covering disability issues.

Tribune reporters Michael J. Berens and Patricia Callahan identified over 1,300 cases of documented harm since 2011 in Illinois group homes, or their day programs, for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

At least 42 deaths were linked to abuse or neglect. People who were only able to eat food that was pureed or cut into tiny pieces choked to death on regular food
including a hamburger and a marshmallow. Others died from untreated bed sores and undiagnosed illnesses. One resident, accused of stealing cookies, was beaten to death by a caregiver.

Berens and Callahan found a wide range of mistreatment: residents were mocked and intentionally provoked, bound with duct tape,
 barricaded in rooms, left in soiled clothing and denied food. They also looked at resident-on-resident assaults, in particular in homes where people with severe physical disabilities were mixed with those with histories of violence. 

Illinois officials told the reporters that the addresses of the 3,000 group homes, which house up to eight residents each, are secret, as are records of abuse or neglect causing death. The reporters filed more than 100 public records requests, but state files were so heavily redacted and unreliable they had to dig up information elsewhere.

Caregivers, often unlicensed and untrained, earn an average of US$9.35 an hour, the investigation noted. Ironically, the reporters found the state saves US$135,000 a year when it places a person in a group home, instead of an institution. 

Illinois' group homes are not bound by staffing standards and other rules regulating nursing homes.

Berens and Callahan are to be commended for shining a light on the personal stories of the victims and their families.

They talk about their work in this fascinating panel


Always look forward to the Arizona Disability Writing prize each year.