By Ralph De La Cruz
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
For anyone who believes great journalism went the way of electric typewriters and afternoon newspapers, I urge you to check out The Miami Herald’s recent series on abuse and negligence in Florida’s assisted living facilities.
It took a year of reporting and writing to create “Neglected to Death.” But it was worth every minute and every dollar put into it — particularly considering Florida’s unique position as America’s retirement nest.
Assisted living facilities for the elderly and those with mental illness have always been notoriously private. But Herald reporters Rob Barry, Carol Marbin Miller and Michael Sallah used a database that examined complaints to the state Department of Children and Families, autopsy reports, police calls, findings from medical examiners’ offices — hundreds of thousands of pieces of information — to pry open the world of ALFs.
“That’s where the real effectiveness of database reporting comes in,” said Sallah, a reporter/editor who leads The Herald’s investigations team.
They ultimately threw their energies behind 70 cases that resulted in death. And then really got to work in the traditional sense of reporting. Making calls. Knocking on doors. Asking hard questions of people who might not want to answer.
And then telling the stories in a compelling way.
“Don’t ever think technology can usurp shoe-leather reporting,” said Sallah, who teaches an investigative reporting class at the University of Miami. “Writing and reporting — there’s no substitute for it.”
They found a grandmother who was so brutally strapped down that she developed blood clots from which she didn’t survive. A former priest with dementia was allowed to wander out of a Pinellas County ALF and was ripped apart by alligators.
Legendary Congressman Claude Pepper had personally pushed for a Residents Bill of Rights, which was passed by the state legislature in 1980.
“In the mid ’90s, Florida passed some of the toughest elder abuse laws in the country,” Sallah said. “In Florida, the standard for determining guilt in these cases is ‘culpable negligence.’ We read a lot of things in those cases where it would be hard to argue there wasn’t culpable negligence.”
And yet, of the 70 cases in which someone died, only two people were charged with a crime. And one of those people, who was sentenced to one year of house arrest and five years of probation, later had her record expunged.
What’s the problem?
Too often, The Herald found, prosecutors think, “It’s just old people.”
“A lot of attention is paid to children,” former DCF Secretary George Sheldon told The Miami Herald. “Somehow, we don’t have the same kind of outrage when a person is 70 or 80. There’s clearly a lack of justice.”
Or, incredibly, prosecutors aren’t familiar with the law.
“We had one prosecutor tell us that this was a civil matter,” Sallah said. “It’s not.”
And then there’s the current political state of mind in Florida: the less regulation and oversight the better.
“They only inspect these places every two years,” Sallah said. “Restaurant inspectors go into restaurants more than that to make sure the milk isn’t left out of the refrigerator. And we’re dead last among big states in what we require of ALF administrators. One of the things we found is that all it takes to be an ALF administrator in Florida is a high school diploma or GED (high school equivalency certificate) and 26 hours of training. The requirements are higher for a barber, a cosmetologist or an auctioneer.”
The good news is that, as a result of The Herald’s three-part series, state Sen. Ronda Storms, who chairs the Senate’s Children, Families and Elder Affairs committee, is looking to toughen the ALF law by increasing the rate of inspection and toughening administrator standards.
That’s what great journalism does. It unearth and reveals injustice and inequality by telling compelling stories that create positive change.
Unfortunately, in these days of declining budgets and shrinking newsrooms, watchdog journalism is often one of the things editors and publishers believe can be sacrificed.
“It wasn’t easy, when we had people losing their jobs and being furloughed, to let us work on this for a year,” Sallah said. “It speaks volumes about what the paper wants to do. And what it cherishes.”
The Herald’s leadership should be proud. And other newspapers should take note: the series had the most pageviews during a week when the Miami Heat was in the NBA playoffs.
Check out the series and send a message to the industry: Forget Charlie Sheen’s hijinks. What people really want from newspapers — in print and online — is great journalism.