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.
Ultimately, 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. He died in this 20s from health complications developed living on the street. The other — who had been offered numerous scholarships out of high school — remains trapped by addiction and the effects of trauma. She reads more than me and is my favorite person with whom to talk politics.
Shaken baby conviction of father who insisted his innocence relied on science, expert
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 drug use, 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. It also explained the ways the evolving conclusions of science can be an ill fit for the finality of decisions made in courts. 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.
Untreated: Addicted and Expecting
People kept talking about the growing number of babies born experiencing withdrawals and the skyrocketing number of kids removed from their families because of parental drug use. In Montana, the numbers were among the highest and fastest growing in the nation.
Why? Are we doing enough to help these families? What can we do better?
Those were the driving questions between a first-time investigative collaboration between the Missoulian and the University of Montana School of Journalism. I worked alongside a dozen students guided by Professor Joe Eaton and me. We identified best practices for treating mothers-to-be and mothers who use drugs, finding our state falls short on several measures. The 9-part series documented the failures of Montana leaders in state government and health care that, while common nationwide, were more pronounced in Big Sky Country.
Beyond the occasional workshop and a 1-credit freshman seminar in college, it was my first time teaching. My player-coach role demanded I be at my best, constantly thinking about the core principals and skills of investigative work to a degree I would not have working on my own. Seeing the students ultimately exceed their expectations of themselves was thrilling.
In just a couple weeks, their work triggered promises from state leaders to do better, captured attention from leading subject experts and reporters, inspired an Esquire writer to type a few critical words of a state legislator, and was noted in two national newsletters about journalism: The Sunday Long Read and Local Matters by Investigative Reporters and Editors.
Bridging the gaps left by Indian Health Service
20 years: That’s how much sooner Native Americans, on average, die than white Montanans. Poor access to basic, let alone quality, health care is a critical reason. Montana has long ranked as having the highest uninsured rate among Native Americans. The Affordable Care Act and then Montana’s expanded Medicaid program were touted by federal and state leaders as ways to close that gap.
But how well have they done? In a four-part series, I explored how expanded access to insurance can dramatically improve the care options for Native Montanans and increase revenue for hospitals that serve them, the practical and regulatory barriers that hinder those improvements, the federal outreach failures in Indian Country and why some Natives are skeptical about signing up, the work of IHS hospital leaders to expand services that are hindered by the federal agency being slow to provide support for increased billing, and numerous tribal programs that are finding ways to make their communities healthier outside federal and state systems — often by growing insurance revenues faster than those government programs. The project relied on extensive in-person interviews, data analysis and government records that were difficult to secure. (In some cases, I had to convince sources to share information superiors had directed them not to release and do so in a way that would not jeopardize their jobs.)
For me, the series emphasized the rewards of tedious reporting to understand complex regulations and the trust it can create with sources wary of parachute journalists, who sometimes focus on the problems and not the people finding solutions despite them. The expertise I developed allowed me to move quickly on an enterprise story a few months later. Outside of indigenous media, I wrote the most comprehensive analysis of how the GOP plan to replace the Affordable Care Act would impact Indian Country. The project also helps me write fuller stories about other health challenges spanning Montana communities, including a shortage of mental health treatment facilities, a spike in meth and opioid use, and the fact the state has the nation’s highest suicide rate.
On a side note, I created all promotional materials for the series and worked closely with our web team to plan a social media strategy as an excuse to learn more about that process. Here are a couple of the images we used:
Out of the Shadow: A child rape survivor’s story
A few months after returning to Montana, I received a tip that prosecutors were close to charging a man for a 1987 child rape but the case might not ever go to trial. Too many years had passed the since the crime, in large part because the wrong man was initially convicted and served 15 years in prison before DNA exonerated him. For that story, I secured the first interview with the survivor of that attack. A few months later, she decided to tell her side of the story for the first time in 30 years, that she wanted her name to be published and she asked me to write it. Linda was ready to come “Out of the Shadow.”
Montana students, on average, did not improve scores on standardized tests
There is nothing special about this brief. We have done better reporting on the significance of these scores. But it does include an interactive database of school-level test results that most parents would never see otherwise. For me, this chart is an example of the long-term value of some interactive designs. I built it three years ago and now it takes only a few minutes to update it each year with the new results.
Commissioners refuse to increase funding for ambulance service as population spikes, leading to delayed response
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.
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 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? Subsequent records requests revealed 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 cited my reporting as he successfully petitioned for 30 percent more funding.
While reporting that story, I discovered another. A city within the county had become so fed up with poor ambulance service that it launched its 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.
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.
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 sugar cane produced with slave labor and then with convict labor, which was the same practice by a different name. The error makes me reluctant to share the story. It was a searing reminder to reach out to diverse group of residents, particularly when writing about a community’s history. I corrected the record a little (just a little) with a follow-up blog post that included the personal memories of several residents.
This page is occasionally updated. Please come back soon! — Jayme, September 2017