Here are the stories behind the stories: how I reported them, what I learned and why they are among my favorites. They aren’t all my best stories, just the ones that stick with me.

Housing assistance for veterans delayed by voucher count

While Houston leaders celebrated new programs to house veterans living on the street, housing authority leaders were quietly battling federal officials from two different agencies over how to count the number of available vouchers. Analyzing records, I discovered that more than 1,090 months of rent went unused in one year even as hundreds of homeless veterans seeking help were put on wait lists. My reporting uncovered additional layers of a national bureaucratic problem that a regional GAO office had missed in a program audit released days earlier.

StoryMapUltimately, it spurred changes to federal regulations and local practices, which moved veterans off the streets and into assisted housing faster. Personally, I was moved by the resilience of a former Marine as he showed me the benches, bushes and bridges he made home while unnecessarily waiting for help. I turned that tour into a narrative, interactive map.

His experiences echoed the stories shared with me by two lifelong friends who have been homeless off and on since middle school. All endured street violence they might have otherwise avoided if the programs from which they had sought help were better managed or funded, or if state laws had not barred programs from serving youth. One ultimately stabilized with our help and became an electrician’s apprentice, but he died at age 26 from health complications developed living on the street. The other — who had been offered numerous full-ride scholarships out of high school — remains trapped by addiction and untreated trauma.

Shaken baby conviction of father who insisted his innocence relied on science, expert

Boylan
Missoula Deputy County Attorney Suzy Boylan (Tom Bauer /Missoulian)

This was the first time I wrote a court story that went beyond the daily play-by-play to ask a critical question: Could Robert Wilkes actually be innocent? Several details shared during jury selection and early stages of the trial seemed unusual to me: Police had another suspect who they dismissed after the prosecutor hired a Minnesota doctor to review the medical files because local physicians were not giving her the answer she felt was right in her gut. I also wondered why Wilkes would spend months fighting for custody of his child, who had been placed in foster care because of his mother’s addiction, only to kill him the day he moved into a larger apartment for the space to his raise his son.

My story did not definitively answered the question of whether Wilkes was guilty, but it did highlight problematic parts of the trial and put them into the national context of similar cases that resulted in wrongful convictions because juries often accept even bad science readily if it is not challenged. In hindsight, I should have asked more questions about the adequacy of the defense mounted by Wilkes’ public defender and waited to publish my story until I received documentation from the Minnesota doctor that showed whether he had, in fact, excluded other possible medical explanations for the infant’s death. Regardless, I learned much about project management and investigative techniques from this, my first major enterprise story. And my reporting brought the case to the attention of the Montana Innocence Project. They later found new medical evidence that the death was the result of a rare disease and not murder. The group is seeking to prove in court Wilkes is actually innocent and should be exonerated.

Commissioners refuse to increase funding for ambulance service as population spikes, leading to delayed response, high turnover

Over five months, a daily story would evolve into an investigation that revealed poor decisions by county leaders who then worked to block my access to revealing records. I also used this series of stories as an excuse to learn new analysis tools and to code a data visualization for the first time rather than using an out-of-the-box program.

FBamb02
In my first hand-coded map, I showed how ambulances frequently responded to calls far from their stations (the yellow marker) because the county had too few units to serve the burgeoning population.

It started with a county commission agenda item to approve a significant amount of overtime for paramedics. To prepare for the meeting, I asked for a copy of the backup materials, but the human resources director refused “until after the commissioners voted.” It was a clear violation of Texas public records law that I reported to the County Judge (the county’s CEO, so to speak) and a FOI hotline of the attorney general’s office. It got me wondering: Why would they be so nervous to give me a couple pages of basic information that a commissioner independently felt no reason not to share with me? Subsequent records requests revealed that commissioners had ignored their ambulance service director for nearly a decade as he requested funding to expand his crews and as the county’s population grew by almost half. The county also had violated federal law with its overtime practices, leading to a costly settlement with paramedics. Among other issues, it spurred a huge turnover among staff that left ambulances empty, spiked response times and forced the remaining paramedics to work 80-hour weeks. The county fought my request for detailed response data, ultimately losing when the attorney general ruled in my favor. By that point, commissioners had fired the longtime EMS director and hired a new leader who successfully petitioned for more funding in hearings that cited my reporting.

While reporting that story, I discovered another. A city within the county had become so fed up with poor ambulance service that it launched it’s own — except they did so months before securing the typical licenses to dispense controlled substances. For more than half a year, they could not administer industry-standard medications to stop heart attacks, strokes or to treat other life threatening emergencies. Unfortunately, I had recently accepted a new job and rushed to wrap up these stories. I regret that I did not have adequate time to find more people affected by the city’s and county’s poor management decisions.

Sugar Land reinvents the refinery site that built the town

This story was one of highs and lows. I was proud of my narrative writing, interactive elements and video. But I relied too heavily on traditional historical sources so I missed a critical racial component of the story.

SugarLand01
(Johnny Hansen/Houston Chronicle)

In short, Sugar Land was, from the start, a company town. The closure of the sugar refinery marked the start of a new era for the city that would ultimately reshape the industrial site into a multi-use development. What I didn’t learn from my interviews with city officials, development officials, neighborhood residents and hours at the library was that the refinery had for decades relied on convict labor, a practice that was a new form of slavery in the south. The error makes me reluctant to share the story. Yet, it also was a searing reminder to reach out to diverse group of residents, particularly when writing about a community’s history. I corrected the record somewhat with a follow-up blog post that included the personal memories of several residents.

This page is being updated. Please come back soon!   — Jayme, Sept. 9

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