Bob Giles: Good evening. It’s a great pleasure for me to welcome you to the 44th presentation of the Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism. The Nieman Foundation is extremely pleased to have been invited to serve as steward of this important prize in partnership with the family of Worth Bingham and to hold the ceremony here at Walter Lippmann House.
Our decision to accept this role recognized that the traditions of the Nieman Fellowship program and its dedication to elevating the standards of journalism are an ideal match for a prize that honors investigative reporting of stories of national significance, where the public interest is ill served.
In its early years, the Worth Bingham Prize was presented at the White House Correspondence Dinner in Washington and then later, until 2008, the winner was honored at the National Press Foundation Dinner, which also was held in Washington. The Bingham family and the Nieman Foundation have forged close ties over the years. Barry Bingham, Sr., patriarch of the family that owned the Courier-Journal, and the Louisville Times and father of Worth Bingham served as a member of the Nieman Selection Committee in 1957 and was a generous member of the Walter Lippmann Memorial Fund Committee that raised the funds to renovate this building when the Nieman Foundation acquired it in 1978.
Barry Bingham, Jr., Worth’s brother, established a fund that helped support international Nieman Fellows and in this year’s class our colleague Wahid is the Barry Bingham, Jr. Nieman Fellow and Molly Bingham, Worth’s niece, was a member of the Nieman class of 2005. The latest phase in this long relationship began in 2007, with a request from the family that the Nieman Foundation serve as the archive for the winning entries of the Bingham Prize. The collection of winning stories is stored in the Harvard archive and in our display area downstairs just outside the Kovach Library, you will find a photograph of Worth Bingham and information about his life and work and the winning entry from Michael Berens of The Seattle Times.
Worth Bingham graduated from Harvard College in 1954 and worked for newspapers in Minneapolis and San Francisco before returning to Louisville and his family’s newspapers where he began to learn all aspects of the newspaper business. He covered the Kennedy/Nixon presidential campaign in 1960 and experienced and influenced a growing addiction to politics. He joined the Washington bureau of the Courier Journal and Louisville Times, where he thrived in the Washington journalism environment and built a reputation as a first-rate investigative reporter.
One of his noted pieces was “Our Costly Congress,” a six-part series published in 1962. The stories exhaustively detailed how members of Congress personally benefitted from the perks, padded staff salaries, franking privileges and travel junkets that they approved and appropriated themselves virtually unchecked. “Our Costly Congress” won a National Headline Award, ran in papers across the country and was published in a condensed form in the Reader’s Digest.
The series became a model for the kind of probing journalism the Worth Bingham Prize seeks to emulate. In late 1962, Worth moved back to Louisville as an assistant to his father and to begin preparing to lead the Bingham family business, a dream cut short in a car accident on Nantucket in the summer of 1966. His family, friends and colleagues wanted to memorialize his life and honor his passionate belief that journalism has a duty to uphold a public trust.
Out of that desire, the Worth Bingham Prize was established in 1967, one year after Worth’s death at age 34. We are very pleased to have with us tonight Worth Bingham’s daughter, Clara. She is a former White House correspondent for Newsweek, she wrote “Women on the Hill — Challenging the Culture of Congress” and co-authored “Class Action — the Story of Lois Jensen and the Landmark Case that Changed Sexual Harassment Law.” She is producer of a new documentary, “The Lost Mountain,” about mountaintop mining in West Virginia that will be opening later this year. Like her father, Clara’s a graduate of Harvard and I’d like to ask her to come and give her welcome on behalf of the Bingham family.
Clara Bingham: Thank you, Bob. It’s so great to be here and I just love that the prize has a new home. This is our third year at Harvard and I am just so proud to present this prize tonight to Mike and to also his editor, James Neff, who have both done amazing investigative journalism work. And I hope you all have gotten a chance to read his series. It certainly does exactly what my father tried to do in 1962 with “Our Costly Congress” and not only does it uncover a violation of the public trust, but in this case, I think it’s really a violation of human rights.
The story is shocking and horrifying and I’m afraid now that it’s a multimedia culture we’re going to have to see pictures as well later on. But I’m also so glad that investigative journalism is still alive and that’s one of the reasons why we’ve kept this prize going for so long and particularly in the last few years with the dissolution of newsrooms and reporters and papers folding right and left, my family was concerned, as everyone else in the business has been, that investigative journalism would die. Certainly in Louisville, the Courier Journal has been gutted and there are very few investigative journal reporters on staff and there’s very little space for serious reporting. Luckily, TheSeattle Times is still holding the flag and investigative journalism is not dead. Instead, though, we have multimedia producers who work with investigative reporters and Web designers and it’s clearly moved into a new 21st century realm and I’m glad for that.
I also wanted to thank the judges who had to read, luckily, they had a lot of great entries to read – and that’s Anna Gorman and Walter Robinson and Amy Nutt. They had to spend most of January underneath piles of entries and I think they had a hard time choosing this one because there were so many good ones. We’ll get to hear more from Michael tonight about what it took to achieve this incredible achievement and I’m proud for him and for the Niemans and for my father. Thanks.
Bob Giles: Thank you, Clara. One of our guests this evening is Ted Gup, who is the director of the journalism program at Emerson College and who was a winner of the Bingham Prize in 1980, when he was a journalist for The Washington Post, so, Ted, welcome to you.
We had 102 entries this year, 14 more than last year and it reminds me and makes a point with me, as Clara said so well, that the quality of investigative journalism being done in newspapers large and small in print and online has never been higher and provides a welcome reassurance of the continuing commitment of this essential role of journalism in our free society.
I also want to acknowledge and thank our judges who read through all the lengthy entries and who participated in selecting the 2010 winner of the Bingham Prize. Michael Fitzgerald and Deb Price assisted the judges in the selection process, doing some initial screening. Anna Gorman, who is a Nieman Fellow, Amy Nutt, who is a staff writer for the Star Ledger in New Jersey and a 2005 Nieman Fellow and Walter Robinson, a professor of journalism at Northeastern, who spent more than 30 years at TheBoston Globe, as both reporter and editor, specializing in political and investigative stories. He’s with us this evening. Walter, please let us recognize you.
Following dinner, we will present the Bingham Prize to Michael Berens of the Seattle Times, meanwhile enjoy your dinner.
Bob Giles: The Worth Bingham Prize honors investigative stories of national significance where the public interest is being ill served. In his own reporting from Washington, Worth Bingham once described an atmosphere of easy tolerance that can exist in the nation’s capitol as well as in towns and states across the nation.
Michael Berens of The Seattle Times exemplifies that reality in his comprehensive series, which revealed that thousands of aged and frail adults have been exploited by profiteers or harmed by amateur caregivers in the state of Washington’s 2,800-plus adult family homes. Berens’ series, “Seniors for Sale,” gave lie to an idea that had earned Washington a reputation as a leader in providing community care for the elderly.
The idea was that the elderly could avoid big nursing facilities by living in a neighborhood home, close to family and friends with more freedom and far less cost. What Berens found instead was evidence that elderly victims were roped into their beds at night, strapped to chairs during the day, drugged into submission or left without proper medical treatment for weeks. Even more shocking wrote executive editor, David Boardman, in his nominating letter, “Berens uncovered at least 236 deaths that indicated neglect or abuse in these homes, but were not reported to the state or investigated. Further, the state excused mistreatment even when it knew that homeowners had lied to its investigators, provided false medical records or contributed to preventable deaths.”
Berens reported that the state had a hidden agenda: To reduce its Medicare burden caseworkers had to meet monthly quotas and reallocate thousands of nursing home residents into less expensive adult family homes. This process of putting vulnerable seniors in harm’s way helps the state achieve its goal of saving millions of dollars.
Berens’ work represented the first investigation into the booming senior placement industry, where the market leader is a Seattle company, owned by a Wall Street firm, which charged hefty fees while routinely steering families to adult homes that had not been screened for quality.
Boardman, in his letter, described the incredible obstacles Berens encountered in his persuing the story. The subjects of the series were often either deceased, suffered from dementia or were closed off by family members, who felt ashamed for putting them in such homes.
Berens was told by the State Department of Social and Health Services, which oversees the homes, that there was no story, that the system worked just fine. Berens filed nearly 50 state public records’ requests and eventually obtained more than 15,000 pages of documents.
It took more than a year for the Times to obtain e-mails from agency staffers involved in re-locating seniors. Berens analyzed thousands of pages of disciplinary actions by state regulators and built a database that enabled the Times to give the public information the state could not provide: Which were the homes where residents had been assaulted?
Boardman writes that the six-part series sparked an outcry from readers, including the governor, and quickly led to significant reforms. The Bingham judges applauded the evidence of The Seattle Times’ commitment to investigative journalism, even though the paper’s staff is substantially smaller because of the economic difficulties it faces.
Judge Amy Nutt said, “Michael Berens ripped open the hidden, but highly profitable world of adult family homes, a housing alternative to elderly care that is spreading across the country as states seek to relieve themselves of their Medicaid burdens.”
Walter Robinson said, “There is no better example than its groundbreaking series on the widespread abuse of the elderly and the shocking lack of government oversight. Once again a newspaper that cares deeply about the citizens it serves forced a government that had neglected its own care-giving role to move quickly to bring an end to the abuses.”
And Anna Gorman said, “Berens combined data analysis with old-fashioned reporting to investigate an industry that has grown rapidly without sufficient oversight, but he also uncovered something perhaps even more shocking, the fact that homeowners were trying to sell seniors as part of real estate deals.”
Before presenting the Bingham Prize I want you to meet Michael Berens’ colleague at the Times, his investigative editor, James Neff. James, will you please stand?
Bob Giles: Clara, would you please come forward and help me present the award? Michael, your work is an inspiring example of why newspapers still matter and it’s a great honor for the Nieman Foundation and the Bingham family to salute you as the 2010 winner of the Worth Bingham Prize, to present you with this certificate and a check for $20,000.
Michael Berens: You shouldn’t have given me the check before I had my little talk here. [Laughter] Questions? Because I’m done. Bob, after that buildup, you know, I’m not sure. Actually this last Saturday, I was in a room in Seattle with about 100 older adults. They were ombudsmen in the state of Washington and these were people who volunteer to fan out in long-term care facilities to report on what they see and they asked me to come and talk about the series to them. It was like walking into a room, unlike any other I’ve been, where they were so thankful and appreciative. And I’ve never been welcomed so much by people — our readers, of course, but people who really cared. And they were so appreciative because they understand that we’ve been hit by hard times in the news business, that we have contracted a little bit and they were so flattered actually—I mean that was the words that they used, “flattered” that The Seattle Times had paid attention to older adults. These are people who have been in the system for a long time and had been crying out for help for a long time. By help, I mean pay attention – there’s something big going on here.
And they felt that people weren’t looking and so they were just so grateful and I went home to my wife and I said, “I’ve got groupies.” The sad part is they’re all over age 70, but they’re groupies and I felt so privileged to be with people who understand – as I am tonight, you know – with people who understand what it takes to do this kind of journalism: the time, the money. I’m fortunate to work at a newspaper—and I want to say briefly, The Seattle Times, if you don’t know, is a family-owned newspaper of James Neff— “Jim” to all of us. He’s my editor, of course. And then there’s Suki Dardarian and Kathy Best and above them is, of course, Dave Boardman. Dave Boardman is the editor of the paper and also, the guy who recruited me from the Chicago Tribune to come out to Seattle about six and a half years ago.
And Dave, in his pitch to me to come to Seattle, said, “I’m going to pay you less and you’re going to work for a much smaller newspaper, but I’m going to let you work for guy named Frank Blethen, publisher of The Seattle Times, who deeply cares about investigative journalism.” And in my first weeks there, Frank came up to me and just said, “Go, get ’em. You know, I don’t care what you do, just go do it.” And that’s the kind of publisher that you dream about and so I do have a dream job. When I go around (to talk to) journalism students around the country, it’s hard for me sometimes to say, “I get unlimited time, I get to pick my own stories and whatever I pick, as long as I sell it and support it, the paper gives me everything I need.”
And so it’s hard for me to complain about what I do, but I got an e-mail three days ago—I told this group on Saturday that I was coming here – and actually The Seattle Times ran a little story about the Worth Bingham Award in the newspaper – and they asked me to pass on a message to Clara and said—and I’m just reading here from my notes, “Thank you, you’re saving lives.” And that’s what this group of seniors asked me to pass on to you and I thought it was really the legacy of the Bingham Prize. The award if you look at it, you’ll see that consistently year after year it’s awarded the kinds of stories that impact every person’s life. And so I want to talk to you a little bit about the background of “Seniors for Sale” and say thank you for showing up tonight and particularly Clara who has been fantastic to talk to. She’s really a firecracker under there. I’m sorry. [Laughter]
Clara Bingham: I’ll take it.
Michael Berens: So investigative reporting really is just asking simple questions and getting simple answers, if you can. And really what started this project—I was combing through disciplinary records of the Department of Social and Health Services — It’s something I do normally in my spare time. I just go look at what state agencies are up to and I saw this listing for adult family homes and there were some homes that had been disciplined for egregious violations. You know, not providing proper care. I was relatively new in Seattle, so I said, “What’s an adult family home?” Never even heard of it before so I did a quick look: An adult family home is a residential home that can care for up to six elders and they can provide daily board and care for up to six elders.
What’s it take to become a adult family home owner? Well, it’s about a $100 license fee and just about anyone can become an adult home owner. It’s like how many are there? There are 2,800 adult homes in the state of Washington. Really? 2,800? What are these things? So I called up the department and said, “What’s up with adult family homes?” and they said, “Well, we can’t imagine why you’d be interested in this story because we’re so good,” and they actually pointed me to federally funded studies that said “Washington is the model for the nation when it comes to community-based care, what we call adult family homes.”
This model was the promise. It’s sort of the Wizard of Oz kind of promise – why live in a big box institution, when you can live in a residential place, maybe in a familiar neighborhood in a cozy setting with no more than six people and you’ll get the personalized care, you’ll have more freedom, everything. It’s a Nirvana. “Why wouldn’t you want to live in an adult family home?” is the question.
So that was how they sold this particular industry. What I discovered very quickly—and this is really what led us to try to really embark on the story were the real estate ads that Bob referred to. When I was doing just Google searches and looking through all these books – you go to the health store and you see these books that are distributed free with all the ads in them – and saw that homeowners were actually advertising seniors for sale.
So what you would see is an adult family home that was licensed by the state and they would put up their home for sale for $200,000 and they’d say, “So, you can buy the home for $200,000 — essentially buy the business. But if you want the three people that are inside it, that’s going to be an extra $200,000 cash.” And I would see ad after ad and some of these ads were, “Start making money now. You can be rich. Get into the adult family home business.” So it was being touted as this path to riches. It was being marketed to investors, not health care providers, and so that really turned the key to the story. And that’s really how we framed the story and that’s why we called it “Seniors for Sale,” our lead story, the lede of the story is actually about the profiteers in the real estate ads and as a way also to make the public care about this issue.
We’ve heard stories about abuse and neglect, whether it’s children or adults or older adults, so we tried to focus a little bit of a look on who’s profiting off of this abuse and this neglect and that’s, I think, what really helped us bring this story to life in a way and helped give it a unique twist.
One of the first things I did with this agency — when I called them and they said it was such a great system, they were reluctant — is how do you crack an agency that doesn’t want to help you? And so what I did, and this is kind of the journalist technique tactician in me, is I filed a FOIA for all their names, and this was the first FOIA that I filed at the agency, but if they won’t tell you what’s in the agency, just file a public records request for every manual, for every computer that they own. And what you have is an index of every piece of information that they keep and it’s a great strategy if you’re doing your own investigations. They can’t say it’s privileged information because there’s nothing private about a manual. And so it gives you a schematic of how a state government works and what they have and how they keep it. That opened a lot of doors for me and then I actually had a human source. I was picking up some records at DSHS as it’s known, this agency, and a lady scurried outside when I was going back to my car in the parking lot. She goes, “I noticed that you were asking for investigative records on adult family homes.” She goes, “You know you’re doing it wrong?” I said, “Really? What do you mean?” She slipped me a piece of paper of how this state agency takes a single record on a home and breaks it up into thirteen parts and if you don’t ask for all thirteen parts, you don’t get the full record.
So by just asking for the investigative record, I’m only getting one-thirteenth of what’s really available to me. So it was her kind of unlocking, giving me the Rosetta Stone of “Here’s how you ask for records.” That really helped me unravel what’s going on inside DSHS.
So I’m going to digress for just a second and talk about one of the pivotal moments for me in journalism and it relates, I think, to adult family homes, but when I was on the police beat in Columbus, Ohio, which was where I started in the early 80s, there was a woman who was calling the police every day about a death ray that was coming from outer space and she would look out the back window of her home and the death ray would hit a rabbit in the field and the rabbit would keel over and die. Now I’m not making this up. This is an actual police report, a story I actually wrote about later in the 80s. So week after week she would call about this ray coming from outer space and hitting the rabbits and killing them.
So finally the police sent an officer out to the home and said, “You know, we’re going to shut this woman up and then we’re going to charge her if she keeps calling us with these crazy stories.” So I saw the officer’s report and (it said), “And I proceeded to the home at 23:00 hours, I observed a ray of light come from the sky. I observed the ray of light hit a rabbit and I observed the rabbit keel over and die.” [Laughter] The report then went on to say, “I also saw the police chopper up in the air about half a mile away and the police officers in their spare time would target shoot rabbits from the police chopper.”
Michael Berens: So this woman – all she saw was the light and the rabbits keeling over and in her mind she thought it was a death ray from outer space. She didn’t hear the chopper a half a mile away and that’s what the cops would do in the ’80s when they were bored. They’d find rabbits in fields and they would shoot them from the chopper for fun.
It always stuck with me about (1) every piece of information is good. Never turn away anyone, no matter how crazy they sound. But also, you know, it’s all about perspective. So when the state of Washington told me, “The adult family home system is perfect” – you know – “Look at these federal reports that say it’s fantastic, that’s a thing that you want to test.” And so I wanted to figuratively—I guess—look up in the sky and see if there was a police chopper when it came to adult family homes.
One of the first things I got was a database and again, I started with the simple things, the simple questions. How many adult family homes are there? Who owns them and how many have come and gone? I got a database of all the adult family homes issued for the last ten years. What it did is it gave me a list of all the homes that have come and gone and all the homes that are currently licensed. It’s an incredibly valuable database and it’s just a simple Excel kind of data set, but with it, you can track the turn rate and when you find out that20 percent of the homes are changing ownership or going up and down every year, then you know that there’s a significant problem.
So we asked very simple questions: How many people live in adult family homes? And the state couldn’t tell us. So they license all these places, they just don’t know how many people live inside them. How many people die each year in adult family homes? Don’t know, have no idea. It’s like—I think we track our pets more closely than we track the elderly when it comes to their care.
So not only did we attain databases, but we created our own databases and by that—I won’t ask for hands, this isn’t a training session. How many have created their own database? If I could pass on any tip, you know, again, strategically, it’s one of the most powerful tools in journalism. You don’t have to get databases—you create your own. And it is an organizational tool. If you’ve seen Excel, which is just a piece of blank graph paper, rows and columns of blanks, you take disciplinary records—”We disciplined this home on such and such a date for this violation for doing this, this and this to X number of people,” and you just create columns of information.
So in our story, that’s how we knew not that there were some people who were tied to their beds, we knew exactly how many people had been tied to their beds. How many people had been tied to wheelchairs? How many people choked to death on their food? How many people wanted to go to the restroom at night, but were denied? And then we could zero in on the specific stories, the adult family home that actually had a menu of charges and if you wanted to go to the restroom at night, you had to pay an extra $600 a month or you were just to soil yourself at night. They actually put this in writing in some of these homes.
So by using the databases, by creating our own databases, what we did is we were able to quantify the story and again the key to investigative reporting is—the traditional model has been, “He said/she said.” So you could do a story that some people say adult family homes are bad, some people say they’re fantastic and some people will end the story there. What investigative journalism (reveals is) “He said/she said, now I’m going to tell you which one is telling the truth.” And so that’s where the databases come in and “I’m going to show you in here.” Okay. The state says they’re great, there are people who say they’re not, now I’m going to show you well, they’re probably not so great. So quantification or precision journalism is really what we strive to do.
Bob referred to the really stunning part of this story and that was the state’s financial motivation for adult family homes. So we have all these problems in homes—the state says that they were moving people to adult family homes out of nursing homes because it was better for the people. What we found is that the state had a hidden financial motive for moving people out of nursing homes.
They call it rebalancing. If you were to Google on the term rebalancing right now on elderly or seniors, we would find out that there is a national movement right now in almost every state to move out tens of thousands of seniors from nursing homes into community care settings. What we found in Washington, what we suspect is going on in every state, is that they’re being pushed out of places that are highly regulated into places that are not regulated and they’re being taken from places that have very skilled care to places like adult homes that have very little skilled care. So it really is amazing when you look at the path of how many seniors have been pushed out of nursing homes to adult family homes.
In fact, the state of Washington has a contract with the federal government where they say that we will move 660 people out by the end of 2011. So if you’ve already set the number of people that you’re moving out, surely you’ve got a quota. The state denied that they had a quota of moving people out. We were able to find an e-mail that showed that they do use the word quota. Jim can talk later about the specifics, but we have a lawsuit pending right now with DSHS on these e-mails and they’re trying to fight us and have kept from us at this point the total array of e-mails that will, I think, show what they’ve been up to when it comes to rebalancing.
There have been many reforms as a result of the series, and I think that’s one of the most gratifying parts of investigative reporting –knowing that people are paying attention. One of the reforms is – when the state would discipline a home for violations, they wouldn’t tell anyone in the home what they had done. They wouldn’t tell the families of the people in the home that, “Oh, by the way, this person’s been disciplined for killing someone negligently in the home.” There was no notification. So now they have to publicly post the violations in the home. Believe it or not, the state does not post these things publicly on the Web either. Now as a result of the stories, they do post all the violations on the Web publicly and they—surprisingly even worse, when we took databases and married them together that’s how we found all the uninvestigated deaths, so what we did is take the death certificate database and I don’t know if any of you have used death certificate databases, but take death certificates and you match it to the addresses of all the adult family homes and you get a population of all the people who have died at this particular address or in this particular home and by matching, that’s how we were able to find how many people had died of bedsores inside adult family homes. How many people choked to death on a hot dog, more than you would imagine. How many people fell and died on the floor, if not discovered for six hours or more? So how often does that happen, the state didn’t know, we were able to put precise numbers to it by marrying the data.
And so with those numbers, it gave the power of the story—we’re using the state’s own information and throwing it back at the state and there’s no way that they can say that there’s no sources [inaudible], there’s no ‘deep throat’ here. Everything is on the record. It’s all the state’s information. I think by putting it all together in a story it provides us this backbone, but what I wanted to caution—I’m kind of racing along, so we don’t go too long here is that stories aren’t about numbers. It’s not about databases and databases are a tool, a key, but I show a spreadsheet sometimes to people, “Here’s the spreadsheet where I took all the death certificates and I matched them with adult family homes and look, here’s twenty-nine people who died of bedsores, and what we’ve found is that those twenty-nine people were never reported to the police. This is negligent homicide potentially and none of this was reported. DSHS knew about some of these deaths and they still failed to report them.”
But the story wasn’t that there were twenty-nine people and I’m going to do the video here – it’s about the people and so the real hurdle of these stories is marrying the numbers to the actual people, to the actual victims. The real challenge of this story was finding the people to come forward and again I think what we tried to express is the profiteers of the system, whether it was bed brokers, the people who actually profited off of placing people in long-term care versus the actual adult family homeowners and we worked extensively with the victims of the story, often the family members.
And I have to say—for those of you who are contemplating this kind of reporting, one of the keys for us was to work with the videographer and the photographer from the very first day. Bring them in on the story immediately. In this case, it was photographer Alan Berner, who is just a phenomenal photographer at the Seattle Times and Genevieve Alvarez, who was the video producer and they both came with me to every assignment or to every interview that I did. The reason we did this, as you’ll see from this video, from the project, is that you get those real moments. And what I think it does is when you watch these two sisters talk about what happened to their mother inside this one adult family home, you see a power that transcends the words even a little bit and you see that this could be you. And I think that’s really what the frightening part of this story is that we all have loved ones who are going to need care or we’re going to need care ourselves someday and we’re hoping that there will be someone out there, watching for us.
And what you’ll see is the biggest fear is these were sisters who put their mom in what looked like a great adult family home. This was not a pit, this was not a thing about relatives getting rid of a loved one or shoving them off to the side. They visited every day and this still happened and that’s really the scary part, but what I want to leave you with is this is really—the privilege of doing this kind of journalism is getting to meet people like this, telling their stories and working with them so that they fully understand what they’re getting into. And both these sisters wanted to tell the story and the uniformity, the commonality of what every one of these victims told us, you’ll see expressed with these sisters is guilt that they should have done more and they want to tell their story to you, so that you can understand what they went through and what you need to do in the future.
[Video playing] “This is my mother. This is my older sister, Joyce. This is Janet, that’s me. Easter Sunday—going to church.” “The three daughters of [Najima Sherry] spent weeks in search of the perfect place for their mother. They thought they had found it at Tacoma Narrows. They had no idea that the owner of the home, [Arlan Leno] had a long history of violations involving abuse and neglect. Mr. Leno would not talk to the Seattle Times. The state records show that his home has been cited with more violations than any other home today.”
“We tried to [inaudible] we talked to social workers and [inaudible]. We went through our questions. I knew [inaudible] she then went and looked at the facility, saw them visually.” [inaudible] all the things that I could see them, but I didn’t [inaudible] and I’ll kick myself till the day I die I didn’t know that I should call DSHS.”
“Here’s a woman who asked all the right questions and did all the right research, whose two other sisters were there, three or four times a week, observing what was going on, and they didn’t know until Najima says to Janice, “Hey, my arm hurts,” and she looks and sees this gaping hole.”
“[inaudible]” I was just shocked, I was mad.” It was down to the bone, the bone was exposed and the nerve endings were open.”
“Not only was she not dealt with appropriately, but she was given the wrong treatment and cleaning to deal with a bedsore that got worse and worse and worse to the point where it became the most severe Stage 4 pressure ulcer.”
“Najima Sherry lingered for weeks in excruciating pain, this is a pressure sore that became infected and ate to the bone. Janice was with her mother the night before she died.”
“And I just had the sense that this was going to end.”
“You talked to her?”
“What did you talk about?”
“I whispered in her ear and said The Lord’s Prayer with her.”
“I’m sorry to ask.”
“It was hard to take.”
“I [inaudible] and we didn’t know and I didn’t complain early enough to save her. That I should have had my eyes open wider, but then after [inaudible] what we had done in the last two years [inaudible]. I don’t know. We did our best.”
“Nadjima Sherry’s daughters were very vigilant and they cared about their mom, visited three, four, five times a week, but oftentimes you can’t see what’s going on behind the scenes.”
“It makes angry that she wasn’t cared for by the people we trusted her to [inaudible], those staff members, nothing happens to them.”
“The only people who knew that it was worsening every day were the care givers who were changing her or supposed to be changing her at all times. So they were the ones with the key information. For whatever reason, they chose either to ignore it or hoped that it would go away, but certainly not alert anybody.”
“We’re angry [inaudible] now because of the situation [inaudible] treat my mother the way that they should have and may have neglected her out of their own ignorance, they just didn’t [inaudible].” What they didn’t do or did do led to her final demise.”
“Sadly, there are going to be other Najima Sherrys, there have been other Najima Sherrys and until DSHS takes their charge responsible, you’re going to have other tragedies like this.” [Music playing]
[End of video]
Michael Berens: I like this video because it reminds us that there’s still work to be done. There have been other Najima Sherrys. We wrote about another woman who died almost identically—in that case because of our stories in part the care giver is serving a prison term and the adult family homeowner, one of the first in state history is now serving a prison sentence as well in part from the public pressure that was exerted by the series.
Going back to the death rate analogy that that’s what we’re all trying to do here is look behind the scenes and look for every explanation to what we can find. So thank you so much, this is just such a high honor to be in front of all of you tonight and if you have any questions, I’d love to take any questions or observations.
Q & A
Q: What was the response of the care givers that you interviewed as part of the story?
A: The initial response by the adult family home industry in the State of Washington was outrage, they felt that we were not focusing on the positives of the industry. We did in this series actually do a video profile of a good home and we did a sidebar story profiling a good home.
Initially, there was a revolt inside the adult family home industry and they fired all their representative leaders in an organization that they had because they felt that they hadn’t controlled the story the way that they had hoped. The new management of the adult family home industry is very supportive of the Seattle Times and believes that reforms are needed, and have worked for some of those reforms.
There are two pieces of legislation pending right now in the State of Washington which has the support of the adult family home industry. One will make the point of entry much harder to own an adult family home, as I alluded to, it only took a few hundred dollars and a desire to make money essentially to become an adult family homeowners in the State of Washington. Now it’s going to be much tougher. There’s going to be stiffened training, better training and the other reform will be with these companies who get hefty commissions to place seniors into adult family homes in other places. There’s going to be new guidelines and make it much harder for them to do their job without the public actually understanding what they’re getting into.
Q: Two reporting questions: The first one, did you do a statistical analysis comparing the mortality rates in these homes with more conventional nursing homes?
A: Ah! Yes!
Q: And what did you find and two, I was surprised that there were abuse reports and I assume that whoever did these that that’s only the tip of the iceberg. I assume that the actual number of abuses would far exceed the number of reports.
A: You’re actually correct, and actually you hit on probably the chief initial criticism. This was the beauty of doing a continuing series because generally you try to anticipate every question and you answer it in your one big blast, but we had our initial blast of stories and then we came back with another blast and we came back with another one and another one. And when the first stories came out, this was the first accusation by adult family home industry. “Well, this isn’t fair, you found problems with us, but nursing homes are much, much, much worse and people are dying at higher rates. There are more bedsores in nursing homes.”
Well, I talked to you about marrying the death certificate database with the address database of adult family homes, so I did the same thing with nursing homes, took all the nursing home addresses and found out how many people fell to their death in a nursing home? How many people choked to death on food? How many had pressure sores, Stage 3 or Stage 4 pressure sores that contributed or actually directly led to their death and the stunning number I thought was a little surprise, certainly adult family home industries, adult family homes have a much higher mortality rates when it comes to all the kind of accidental or negligent categories of death. Now what’s your second question again?
Q: The second question was about these abuse reports—
A: The abuse reports—
Q: Let’s assume that this was just the tip of the iceberg that most stuff wouldn’t even be reported and I’m surprised, frankly, that the state would even be on the top of its game sufficiently to sniff out any of this.
A: What we did is—and this is why you find out what does a state agency keep? How does a report begin? It begins with a complaint. So what we did is I filed FOIAs and we’re still getting them in today, believe it or not, and I’m submitting my record bills to Jim next week, but we asked for all the complaints and then we cross-matched it with how many of those resulted in actual investigations or abuse/neglect files? And what we found, of course, is the ratio staggering of how many people filed valid complaints and the state said, “Nah, don’t think so. We’re not going to find merit in that. We’re not even going to investigate it.” It’s something that we’re contemplating on how we’re going to deal with that, but absolutely. The state’s acknowledged rate of abuse and neglect is minuscule to what the actual rate is and one way to figure out what the actual rate is is looking at those abuse complaints that come in that the state just ignored or dismissed.
Q: First of all, congratulations. This is really fine, fine work.
A: Oh, thank you.
Q: Did you ever learn the identity of the woman who chased you into the parking lot?
A: Oh, yeah. I knew who she was.
Q: Did she become part of your—
A: Never named her, she’d be fired.
Q: Obviously, but I mean was she an ongoing source?
A: No. It was the one time thing.
Q: Lightening strikes?
A: Yeah. I think it’s the value of—it’s not quite observational reporting, but going in person to places. You can get records in the mail, but every chance I get, I go down to the state agencies to pick them up because I get to see their bulletin boards when I’m inside. I get to see what they’re talking about. Invariably, people see me and I’ve been there long enough where they know what’s Mike Berens doing here at DSHS,? Oh, my God! I’ve done other state agencies and so they know, he’s not here to do a feature story that’s for sure. That’s how she knew that I was there, picking up records and she made her way outside to hand me this list. I showed it to Jim when I got back to the newsroom, “Look at this, look at all these record types.” It’s sort of like the FDA, where they have all these numbers for the forms, if you don’t know exactly what form to ask for, you’re not going to get it that’s the way this agency was.
Q: Could you talk a little bit about just the practical thread of your job? Were you working with other people? Were you entering all this information on a database yourself?
A: On this one, I worked alone. I’ve done this kind of database before. I think it’s really important to do your own data entry and when I see a paper document, I see a database, just in my head immediately, it’s like a Rainman kind of thing. You see a disciplinary report and all of a sudden I start breaking it down into little cells of information. “Oh, there’s the date. There’s how many people there were.”
Again by taking that paper and creating a data set and as you do it, you keep adding categories. So I essentially had a database of about 150 categories for every report. Now a report might only fill three or four of those categories or a couple dozen, but over time, I was able to minutely track, so not only how many people choked to death, what did they choke on? Was it food? Was it some other object? Did they fall in their bedroom? Did they fall out in their common area? Was it in the bathroom? And so I was able to come up with all these details. So I do all my data entry, the process for the story is the Seattle Times encouraged us to [scout] for a project and once I find the topic that I think is worthy of a project, I write a memo. I give it to Jim and Jim evaluates essentially whether it’s hitting the benchmarks. Anyone who wants this, I was tempted to bring it tonight, but I have a 10-point checklist for myself that I won’t pick a story that doesn’t hit all ten points. I’ll be happy to share that with anyone. There’s no secret about it. I think I actually have it on a flash drive tonight with me, but I’ll e-mail it to you. I’ve used it recently in a training session with other journalists.
And it’s very simple stuff, can the issue be quantified? Is there a potential for change? Are there people, are there victims that you can bring to life? So I have these ten things that—does the story fire on all ten cylinders, and if it doesn’t, given that this is a discretionary story, I’m looking for stories that I can do that have the most impact.
Now not every story can hit every cylinder necessarily, but I look for ones that do and so I’ll be happy to share that with anyone. It’s not a big deal, but one of the categories is: Do I like the story? Do I care? I’m not going to spend a year on something that I don’t care about. I want to know that I’m doing something important, not necessarily popular, but important.
Q: I wonder as a public service part of what you did, did you tell people what criteria they should use in selecting residences for somebody about whom they cared?
A: I didn’t give specific advice. Our stories talked about what to look for, you look for enforcement history and we ran, with the story, help boxes and informational graphics and boxes that show people here’s who you can call to find out the history of the home. Here’s the ombudsman’s office, they can help you. So we gave people a lot of guides and points of entry to be able to investigate homes for themselves and we got a lot of calls and I would refer them to various experts. The ombudsman’s office—and every state has one—is a really valuable resource because they’re a conduit of a lot of the frustrated people who call and say, “I need help, can you help me?” So they keep a log or even their e-mail files and they can search that stuff for you later.
Q: What level of obstruction did you get along the way, did you get any obstruction to what you were trying to reveal?
A: Yes. I’d say we got significant obstruction. The State of Washington lied to us several times on the record. For instance, when I first asked them, “Do you track deaths in adult family homes?” “Oh, absolutely. We track every death.” “You do? Really? Could you show me that?” When pressed, of course, they had to admit, “No. We don’t actually track any death.” When we asked for e-mails, when it came to re-balancing, again this is the state’s move to physically move people from the most expensive care, nursing homes, to a less expensive care setting, they provided what they said was a complete roster of all their e-mails on the subject and it turns out it’s probably—
—: One percent.
A: —one percent of what they actually generate, so that’s why we’re suing them. It’s a public record suit, but it took the extraordinary action to sue a state agency to get them to cough up all these e-mails. This was the Achilles’ Heel of the State of Washington when it came to adult family homes and this was this financial motivation and they just don’t want anyone to know about it and they don’t want to acknowledge that there is a financial motivation and I’m giving away a story here to some extent, but this is something that’s going on in every state right now. This re-balancing effort is encompassing, as I said, about 35,000 seniors in about thirty-two states and it’s going on as we speak. I’m told that there are far worse places than Washington out there, so whatever you see in this series, you can bank it’s going on someplace else too.
Q: It sounds like the [inaudible] you exposed went far higher than just the two people who went to prison, went far higher up the chain? Is that a source of frustration to you?
A: The lady who ran the adult family home program was demoted and she left the agency. I’m told that she is now advising a top federal politician on re-balancing at the moment, but she did lose her position. It’s not frustrating because that’s not my motivation on getting people fired or going to jail. Actually I have mixed feelings sometimes about the whole jail issue and what’s appropriate punishment for care givers and the owners. The real payoff is the reforms that will help people be more empowered and when you have a state agency that tries to hide this information, they won’t even tell people when something has occurred in the home, they won’t tell the other residents what’s occurred. Or when you have a state agency that wants to ignore deaths, even when they are confronted with stunning information. Look at this home that we showed the video, they know about this home. I didn’t reveal to the state that it has more violations than any other adult home in the history, they knew it. In fact, their own field investigators, if you look closely at that report that [inaudible] said, “We need to revoke this guy’s license. We need to do it now.” And the supervisors said, “Nah. I don’t think so.” He is still open today. This is an eighty-three year old man, who’s running an adult family home, providing care for six people, who’s repeatedly hired convicted felons, who tried to hide a seventh patient in there to make more money. Who’s had abuses far beyond Najima Sherry and so I could go on and on about the guy. I have no idea why he’s still open.
Q: I used to cover children’s issues a lot and so much of this story has echoes of the very repetitive coverage of the foster care system. It just rings so much with the financial incentives that often drive people to take in foster children. The abuse rates that exist, the headline stories that we all read about, the incredible trials that we hear about out of New York or out of Massachusetts and then we constantly see ten, twenty years later, very little is changed. We’re reading the same stories, they have a very similar cast of characters in them, the same thing is happening. I guess I’m just wondering what you think is going to happen in this one? Do you think the elderly have some different place in our national culture that may make change come about that you’re seeing in Washington that doesn’t necessarily happen with children? In other words, elderly people vote and they have a voice, do you have a sense that this is a different dynamic, at least from the action that’s going to come out of it?
A: I don’t know enough about both issues to really do any comparative analysis, I guess or try to figure out philosophically what’s going on. I would argue that seniors don’t have a lot of clout when it comes to these kinds of issues and, in fact, until we did this project, no one had really done anything in the last decade about senior housing in the State of Washington. That’s because the state had put up this facade that everything was fantastic and it was working really well and so why question it? So I guess—I don’t know how many times it’s going to take us to do these kinds of stories, but I think that’s our role. Whether we have to do them a thousand times before something happens, before, hopefully, what’s happening in Washington is the seniors are banding together to some extent and they are demanding change and they are demanding recognition and they’re saying, “We can’t be placed behind the scenes. We don’t want to be invisible anymore.” With children there’s a lot of advocates for them, but it’s like every year you see the same story to some extent.
And I have to say that’s why we structured the story the way we did is to try to bring new recognition to an old problem. Except what we’re seeing here with the adult family homes is that this is a new phenomenon. We’ve always had elder abuse in various forms, whether it’s nursing homes, the horror stories are legion in nursing homes or boarding homes or any other name. What we’re seeing is the unprecedented growth not only in Washington, but in every state of these community-based living facilities. California has more adult family homes than Washington. Oregon has tons of them, Wisconsin. They’re everywhere and they’re starting to grow exponentially right now because the population of the aged, as you know is skyrocketing each and every year. So this is a mounting issue that we’re seeing.
Q: So have you had a flood of interest from reporters from these other states, the thirty-one other states?
A: I have. I’ve received quite a few calls from other reporters interested in pursuing adult family homes and they’re trying to find some of the techniques that will let them unravel the story for themselves. We have the luxury of time at the Seattle Times to be able to unravel these kinds of things, not every reporter has the database expertise that it takes to be able to computerize this kind of information. I would say, if you’re in a position to learn something about computer information, you should. My little lecture is that today’s public information—large reams of public information is kept exclusively in electronic format and if I didn’t have some computer skills or if you don’t have someone at your paper or your publication who doesn’t have those skills, you’re forever locked away from understanding what’s sitting right in front of you. So if I didn’t have those databases of adult family homes, if I wasn’t able to cross-match them with death records, we could have never found the hundreds of people whose deaths deserve to be investigated, but never were. And so that stuff doesn’t exist on paper, so that’s my little lecture is you really need to find ways to unlock this information. That’s what I tell the other reporters who I talk to is you need to find a way to take the state’s own information and figure out what they’ve got because the information is there, they just don’t want to tell you or they don’t know themselves because they don’t want to know and that’s really the fun part of what I do is taking their information and telling them, “Here’s what your own information shows and it’s not good.”
Q: Did other families like these two sisters decide to take the cases of their parents or relatives to court or a lawsuit independently?
A: There were many who wanted to, this was the only successful thing that we found and the reason is because the burden of proof is so high, not only did this family sue the owner, who only had a small little bit of money, but they were able to sue the state for willfully knowing about the problems and not doing anything to shut the home down. So it was a rare lawsuit in the State of Washington where a state agency actually lost. They paid about a half a million dollars to the sisters because the attorney was able to prove that the state had knowledge of the problems and failed to act. That’s a really high legal burden. Many other families that we profiled had no legal recourse.
One of the things—and there’s so many little details in these series, but nursing homes, for instance, have to have liability insurance or malpractice insurance. Adult family homes used to have to have insurance, but the state waived the insurance for adult family homes because owners complained that it was chipping away at their profits, so they waived all insurance for adult family homes. So that makes it really tough to sue them because there’s no money to go for.
Q: I have a more practical question, so as the reporter, you had to work with your colleagues to do the video, did you find it very challenging? Would there be a trend in the future for journalists—if you work for a newspaper, let’s say you have—
A: That’s one of the things we’re trying to figure out as a profession now is how are these things going to collide, video, still photography, multimedia, interactive graphics, all that stuff. I, personally, love the medium. I think that it’s critical to bring your videographers, your video producers and your photographers with you from moment one. When you watched this video, you probably heard the clicking going on in the background that was our photographer and you saw, of course, Genevieve was behind the camera and she was shooting this during a—this was my first person-to-person interview with these sisters. Now I had talked to them on the phone a lot and there’s a lot of prep work, what I find doing these kinds of videos is I spend three times as long working with people to get them to the stage where they’re comfortable. And it’s important to me that they understand what the visibility is going to mean that readers can be vicious out there sometimes and react differently.
One of the women I profiled in the series got some angry messages on our reader board. “Oh, it looks like she’s rich, why does she stuff her husband in an adult family home, if she has so much money?” She wasn’t, but people can be vicious. So I have to prepare people, “You’re going to get idiots, who react to this, and when you have two sisters, who say, “I feel guilty”—sure as heck, there’s going to be some person on a blog out there who’s going to make fun of them. “Why didn’t the sisters do more? It sounds like to me they’re at fault.” So I prepare people for that and that takes time and I also prepare them for the good parts of what they’re doing and I share with them afterwards many of the comments that we get. We got over 1,000 e-mails and phone calls within the first three days of the first part of the series, that’s how many people cared. So I think that’s a testament and I try to share that. I’m still in touch with the sisters and every person in the story today and probably will be for years. It’s a challenging, time consuming process, but I think again it’s about people and I treasure the fact that these people will come forward and talk.
Q: Speaking about the crossover between video and print, do you consider confronting the owner of the home on camera, which might not have really made anything much for the print story, but it would have made good video?
A: We tend not to do that, that kind of 60 Minutes—from the circa 1980s kind of thing. I don’t know what value there is in it. I approached Arlan multiple times, he didn’t want to talk. We had to wait for him to get in his car, he’s going to the grocery store and get him on video, I’m not sure that strengthens the story and it puts the focus on us and we’re not the story. At least at the Seattle Times—correct me if I’m wrong, Jim—but I just don’t think it’s something we find value in doing. I think even television has gotten away from it for the most part, but I don’t know, do you see something different? A lot of it was just time versus return. I didn’t have the time to sit in front of his house for three or four days, hoping he’d peek out and then shoot a surreptitious picture.
Now a previous series I did on medical providers who sexually abuse their patients, there was a doctor who we wanted to lead off with and he refused to talk to us and we did do a surveillance shot at him, but it took a lot of elaborate setup, mistaken identity is always in the background, so we have done it, but we do it very, very sparingly.
Q: Is there a national story? Has anyone picked it up at the national level?
A: PBS did a twenty-five minute segment on the series and kind of raised some of those national issues. NPR, All Things Considered, did a really nice segment on it. Those are all off our Web if you want to watch them or listen to them. I think again the series has reverberated nationally because these are core issues and they’re going on everywhere. I think what’s new about this story is this economic heart of the story, this kind of calculus where not only Washington, but every state’s trying to save money right now. They’re all quote, unquote “going broke” and the elderly often are expendable. I’m sure as you probably know children are losing their services and states are ruthlessly cutting back and yet maintaining this facade that it’s for the best. “We’re doing the best we can and it’s better for you.” So I think that’s why there’s been so much attention to this is that I think you could find this story in some form or another in every state, unfortunately.
Q: In most papers, most publications, most news gathering organizations today they would not have deployed three people on an interview. The whole thrust today is a one-man band, the person you send is the still photographer, the videographer and the reporter. To what degree would that have compromised the quality both of your production values and your reporting if you had to do it all yourself?
A: That’s an excellent question and one I’ve thought about before. I think it would have compromised it greatly. The two people I’m working with are professionals and Genevieve knows what she needs to get on film, when I’m talking she can get the extra shot, she can do the close-up, she can focus on when to close up, when to do a wide scan. I couldn’t do all that and concentrate on the questioning and the report and again you’ve got to try to maintain some dignity to these situations. We explain to people there’s going to be a photographer here and a videographer and we explain our reasons why this is important because we want to reach people in every way we can. There’ll be some people who will be moved by the video, there will be some people who are moved more by the story with the picture and trying to do it yourself I think we would have gotten half of what you saw there. What do you do say, “Excuse me,” in the middle of their quote, “I need the camera stopped and I need to put another tape in,” or “My hard drive just filled up, excuse me.” You know those sorts of things and that’s happened to Genevieve while we’re filming that she has to change cameras or there’s been a malfunction or the lighting need adjusted, so there’s no substitute for professionals. And Alan Berner again is an incredibly award winning photographer at the Seattle Times and no one does it better than him. I could spend a lifetime and never shoot a picture as well as he does. If you want high quality, you’ve got to pay for it and, unfortunately, what you see at the Seattle Times on a smaller scale than some of the bigger papers is they’re still willing to pay for that, but let’s be honest, this is a reprint in PDF form in the Seniors for Sale, one year of work, a year’s worth of stories. We didn’t sell a single ad for this story. I don’t know single subscription that we got specifically because of the story. So, you know, you don’t make money doing this kind of journalism and that’s why you have to try to find a place that will allow you to do stuff that’s important as Frank [inaudible] does and Jim and Dave Boardman and all the other editors who value it, so that’s how I get two professionals working with me because they saw the value of the story and whether it’s going to make money or whether it’s going to be popular we don’t know. We just know it’s important.
Tad: Can I add one thing? It’s a great question. We’ve done a lot of projects at the Seattle Times and this was one where after Mike had got his information together and we were working it up, this was one where we went to the Seattle Times and said, “This would make sense, we’ve got these people. This is the great story. Mike’s got it in his pocket already, it’s going to take months and months and months, but this would benefit—this is one where you want to be involved from Day One.” And so this was actually the first project that really—well, we did do that. Normally, the photographer might come in a little bit later and the video production would come in a little bit later because you’re four or five months in, now you’ve got the outlines of the story and—so maybe the photographer would go to the key interviews and record the victims or whatever the story happens to be about, but this one was one where the way—the content, the subject and the way Mike had—you could tell from the outline from the very beginning what he was going to get.
Michael Berens: What I think Tad’s getting at if you’d have told the great idea that you shoot the video and the pictures while you’re reporting what would we have gotten as the end product?
Tad: No, that’s—
Michael Berens: I just don’t know how you’d do it. I’ve seen the same stories you’ve seen on Romenesko, where we’re all going to be carrying battery packs and cameras and a notebook and an iPad and everything at the same time. I don’t know how that model is going to work and do the serious, thoughtful, in-depth kind of journalism that these kind of topics require. Thank you so much.
Bob Giles: Michael, thank you. You’re an inspiration for your work. Jim Neff, I want to thank you for being the man, the editor behind the scenes, who made this come alive and Clara, thank you so much for your support. We’re very proud to be partners with you and your family in this venture. Thank you all for being with us tonight, we’re adjourned.