The National Center on Disability and Journalism announced this week that “Culture of Cruelty,” a project of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network in collaboration with Lee Enterprises Midwest and Capitol News Illinois, won first place in the large media market category of the 2023 Katherine Schneider Journalism Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability.
The series was a collaboration with Capitol News Illinois reporter Beth Hundsdorfer and Lee Enterprises’ Molly Parker, a distinguished fellow with ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. (Parker has since joined the staff of Capitol News Illinois.) It revealed a culture of abuse and cover-ups at the Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center in southern Illinois. Their investigation detailed the beatings of patients, a concerted effort by some staff members to cover up abuse and serious neglect, the intimidation of employees who reported such issues, and the attempt to coerce new employees into participating in the abuse or being silent about it.
Following months of reporting, state officials acknowledged that news stories had put a spotlight on the conditions at the state-run center for people with developmental disabilities and mental illnesses. In March, Grace Hou, secretary of the Illinois Department of Human Services, unveiled a plan to move out more than half of Choate’s 225 residents with developmental disabilities within three years and improve safety at the center for those who remained. She also announced that the state would undertake a review of the best use for the facility. At the time, Hou told reporters that she decided to keep the facility leaders in place during the transition for continuity because they’ve known many of the patients and their guardians for years.
In July, the news organizations documented ongoing problems under current leaders at Choate despite IDHS’ reform promises; after the story ran, IDHS replaced the facility’s director.
Since the plan was announced in early March, 19 residents have moved out of Choate. About half of those moved to other developmental centers, which have also been linked to cases of abuse and neglect.
See a list of all winners for the Excellence in Disability Reporting awards.