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Tips on investigating the ignored and abused – elderly, mentally disabled, and children

By Pamela Cyran

Investigating vulnerable populations such as the elderly, mentally disabled, and even children, is extremely taxing. Many times it’s finding the story in the first place that’s troubling. Proving the story is another task.

In many cases these victims can’t speak for themselves. Maybe they have no family or family are hesitant to criticize people who’ve been taking care of their loved ones. Sometimes victims can’t be counted as reliable witnesses to what they’ve gone through.

These victims have no voice and that’s what makes this job important, panelists explained during "Ignored and abused: Investigating caregivers."

“My recommendation, if you’re going to pursue this type of reporting, start with a P and A,” said Ryan Gabrielson, of California Watch.

All facilities will have protection and advocacy groups, Gabrielson said. The groups, nonprofit organizations which might be named something else officially, are often called P and A's by staff members. People from protection and advocacy cannot be a record source in many cases.  They can guide, find loopholes, and often provide the ins and outs to help reporters get started.

Carol Marbin Miller, The Miami Herald, said to talk with ombudsmen, councils and advocacy groups.

“Most are dying to talk because they’ve never had the ear of a reporter,” Miller said.

New York Times reporter Russ Buettner said police reports are not very helpful at this point in the investigation. You need names. Look for deaths of unnatural causes in local newspaper clips to find names.

Gabrielson says your next step is to get your hands on data. Request reports from coroner and medical offices when investigating any vulnerable population. Pull any files that involve homicides.

According to Gabrielson, California has the Heath Facilities Consumer Information System, a database that all federally funded facilities must submit incident reports to. It’s not just on the state level. Every facility funded by Medicaid or Medicare must submit reports to the Aspen Complaints/Incidents System. Look especially for injuries from abuse or unknown origin.

Buettner said it’s a good rule to always follow the money. Check IRS master files and find out who the big players are in what you’re investigating.

Public records are a godsend, but you have to know what to do with them. Get to know programs like Access and Excel. Merge your data to find patterns in things such as dates, money and cause of death.

When it comes to investigating child abuse, Miller advises reporters to check out county juvenile courts.

“I found two or three judges that I liked and spent days in their courtroom,” she said.

Miller also said to talk to bailiffs and judicial assistants and get to know the lawyers. Develop confidential sources within the agencies you are investigating. They won’t talk right away, but keep trying, “and they may find you when that bad thing happens.”

Families can be a great source for photos and videos of victims to really drive your story home, Buettner said.

Pamela Cyran is a journalism graduate student at Emerson College.

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