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The Best of Us: ProPublica Illinois 2019

In our second(ish) year of existence, here’s a selection of our work that, as a whole, best shows who we are as a newsroom, what we do and why we do it.

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Well, that was a year. I’m not feeling particularly reflective about 2019, reader, or able to offer you a pretty bow to tie it all up. But I am going to make a list for you. You could say it’s our “ProPublica Illinois Best of 2019” list, but this type of thing always raises the question: Best of what?

Our most popular stories? The ones with the most impact? Sort of both? Since we first started this newsletter in the fall of 2017, I promised it would be “personal — but not too personal.” In light of that commitment, I’m calling this list ProPublica Illinois at Its Best, or The Best of Us. In our second(ish) year of existence, here’s a selection of our work, mostly organized chronologically, that, as a whole, shows who we are as a newsroom, what we do and why we do it. Ready?

How Illinois Bet on Video Gambling and Lost

First up, video gambling. In January, we published the first part of an ongoing investigation into how the legalization of video gambling has transformed Illinois. This story revealed how video gambling not only failed to help pull the state out of its financial tailspin, as was promised, but actually made it worse. It exemplifies the hard-hitting accountability reporting we do, and it also highlights how we collaborate within our newsroom, combining the strengths of data, news applications and engagement journalism. You can read subsequent parts of this project here.

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At Chicago City Hall, the Legislative Branch Rarely Does Much Legislating

This story is both big-picture and detailed, contextual and relevant. It examines the troubling inner workings of Chicago politics and how, for decades, that structure has partly relied on favor-trading to keep the mayor in control of the City Council and aldermen reigning over their wards. Also, reporter Mick Dumke hosted an excellent night of live-tweeting from our @ProPublicaIL account on the night of Chicago’s mayoral election, including several on-point takes, soundtracks and a pet cat or two.

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After Controversy, Heartland to Close Four Illinois Shelters for Immigrant Youth

In 2018, we published a series of stories about allegations of abuse and lax supervision of immigrant children and teens held at Chicago-area shelters, many of which are run by the nonprofit Heartland Human Care Services. In March 2019, we reported that, after public scrutiny and staffing issues, Heartland was closing four of these facilities. This was one of a number of stories we also published in Spanish this year.

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Rohan Patrick McDonald for ProPublica

Their Father Speaks Spanish. Their Foster Parents Raised Them to Speak Slovak.

Our investigation into the failures of the state’s child welfare agency to adequately serve Spanish-speaking children in its care raises questions such as this one by an Illinois lawmaker: “How in 2019 do we not have enough Spanish-speaking caseworkers?” This piece centers on the narratives of three different families across more than 40 years who were affected by the state’s failure to follow a consent decree requiring it to place children in its care whose parents primarily speak Spanish in foster homes where that language is spoken. To report this story, we also had to go to court to fight for our right to publish it, as a Cook County judge initially ruled that we couldn’t publish certain information involving one of the families but later loosened these unusual restrictions, calling her previous order “overbroad.” In response to our reporting, the state agency pledged to hire more bilingual workers and better track foster care placements, among other reforms.

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Parents Are Giving Up Custody of Their Kids to Get Need-Based College Financial Aid

It’s likely you’ve heard of or have already read this story, though perhaps you didn’t know we broke it. It was our most-read article of 2019. Here’s how the scheme worked: First, parents turned over guardianship of their college-bound teenagers to a friend or relative. At 18, the student declared financial independence to qualify for tuition aid and scholarships. The story drew national attention and prompted the state and federal governments to take action to try to close that loophole. Additionally, we wrote a piece that explained how we reported this story, including how it first came to us via a tip.

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Chicago City Council Approves Ticket and Debt Collection Reforms to Help Low-Income and Minority Motorists

In February 2018, we first reported on how Chicago ticket debt sends black motorists into bankruptcy. We revealed how the city also relied on ticketing as a tool to raise revenue. We published a database of more than 28 million parking and vehicle compliance tickets, and we used that data to fuel a news application, The Ticket Trap, which allows Chicagoans to learn more about ticketing in their wards.

We wrote about how we collaborated with WBEZ, created an event toolkit modeled after our event in March, and made sure that, through all our reporting, the stories of people most affected by this issue were front and center. The issue became a spotlight in this year’s mayoral race, and in September 2019 — more than 30 published pieces of journalism later — state and local impact happened. There’s a lot about this series that showcases the best of us, but perhaps this ethos describes it best: We stick with our stories until we see results. Speaking of which, on Tuesday we published an update about how many people applied for the city’s ticket debt amnesty program. Hint: It is not that many.

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The Legend of A-N-N-A: Revisiting an American Town Where Black People Weren’t Welcome After Dark

In ProPublica Illinois’ early days, I wrote to you with a promise to get out of Chicago and learn about our state. On one trip, I sat down at the bar of a restaurant in southern Illinois and heard something repeated to me that I couldn’t shake. If you read the story, you’ll see what I mean. That instance led to a deep dive into one community’s history as a “sundown town” — a pervasive history that plagues hundreds of cities, towns and suburbs across the state, whether they know it or not — and ends in a present moment that some readers described as “hopeful.”

Here are more reactions from readers, including answers to various questions such as: “What good do you bring the world by digging up skeletons?” Answer: Not all skeletons of the past are buried.

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The Quiet Rooms

It’s rare that journalism can spark change as quickly as this story did. Yet, within 24 hours of publishing this investigation, a sweeping, detailed examination of how Illinois schools use “isolated timeout,” which is when children are placed in separate — often small, sometimes locked — spaces, state officials issued an emergency ban on the use of locked, isolated seclusion. Our reporting with the Chicago Tribune found that in thousands of incidents, students had been put in seclusion for disobedience, refusing to do schoolwork and other reasons not related to safety — in violation of state law.

Since then, we’ve heard from hundreds of people across Illinois, and around the country, with their own stories, information and concerns to share. We continue to publish stories in this series, including our most recent look into the use, and misuse, of physical restraint of students in school. More to come.

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Readers Choked Back Tears. Some Struggled to Keep Reading. We Understand.

On that note, here’s a follow-up on our seclusion story, first published as a newsletter a few weeks ago, that I particularly admire. In this piece, our reporters Jodi S. Cohen and Lakeidra Chavis and Jennifer Smith Richards from the Tribune reflected on what it meant to them to report the story and listen to readers’ reactions. Here’s an excerpt responding to comments about the upsetting nature of childrens’ experiences:

When reading their words and hearing their voices over the past year, we, too, were moved. We were disturbed. We cried.

Illinois’ current law mandated that school employees document seclusion incidents, but there was no requirement that anyone read them. The state didn’t collect data to know how often it was being used.

That’s why we took this on. Isn’t it better to know?

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That last line sticks with me: Isn’t it better to know? As journalists, this is what keeps us going. It’s why we do what we do. In some ways, the work of journalism can be described as the work of knowing; a process that can be painful, joyful and many other words in between. We hope, through this newsletter, to keep sharing that process with you, too.

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you in 2020.

Logan Jaffe
ProPublica Illinois

P.S. Hi, this is Louise, ProPublica Illinois’ editor in chief and Logan’s boss. If you’re made it this far, you have a good sense, I hope, of what strong, local investigative journalism can accomplish to make our city and state a better place to live. But to keep doing this kind of work, we need your help. ProPublica Illinois is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization; we run on your support. So, as we close out 2019, please consider making a contribution. You can do it right here. Wishing you all the best in the new year.

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