Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights announced that the Miami Herald is the grand prize winner of the 2022 RFK Book and Journalism Awards for “Birth and Betrayal,” a ProPublica Local Reporting Network project. The series was also named a winner in the contest’s domestic print category.
The “Birth and Betrayal” series, by Miami Herald reporters Carol Marbin Miller and Daniel Chang in collaboration with ProPublica, investigated Florida’s Birth-Related Neurological Injury Compensation Association. The program strips parents of brain-damaged newborns of their right to sue in return for a one-time payment and a promise to cover medical expenses throughout the child’s life. Yet the organization has frequently denied or delayed help for struggling families.
The searing investigation documented how NICA amassed assets of nearly $1.7 billion while repeatedly refusing pleas from parents for medication, wheelchairs, specially equipped vans, therapy, in-home nursing care and home modifications. NICA even hired a private investigator to tail one of the families in its program, hoping to prove they were unworthy of help.
The reporters told the story of Jasmine Acebo, who spent her final years trapped in her bedroom because her mom could not persuade NICA to replace Jasmine’s wheelchair or the van that no longer worked. When Jasmine’s medical devices left her mom owing $2,099 to the power company, NICA offered a monthly subsidy: $25.
The journalists reported on a mother who, anguished over her son’s death, handed out leaflets outside her OB-GYN’s office. Ruth Jacques was warned that the doctor was free to do what she could not: sue.
Despite the devastating problems with the program, few people had heard of NICA outside of the families it was meant to serve, who suffered in the dark. That changed after the “Birth & Betrayal” investigation was published.
The first part of the series went live online at 9:00 a.m. on April 8, 2021. At 1:17 p.m., Florida’s chief financial officer issued a statement: “This program needs to treat these children with kindness instead of treating them as though they are a liability for shareholders.” He said he’d ordered an audit and that his consumer advocate had been appointed to help parents who had been harmed.
Three weeks later, lawmakers unanimously passed a reform bill that overhauled every aspect of the program. The legislation increased the initial award that NICA gives to parents from $100,000 to $250,000, boosted a family death benefit from $10,000 to $50,000, raised the allotment for home modifications from $30,000 to $100,000 and set aside $10,000 annually for family mental health counseling. The legislation also, for the first time, put a NICA parent and a disability advocate on the governing board. Kenney Shipley, NICA’s director of nearly 20 years, quit, as did the entire prior governing board.
This series changed lives, awakening lawmakers to a glaring injustice that had metastasized for 33 years unnoticed, except by families in incredibly difficult circumstances. The fixes were immediate and sweeping — and they are continuing. In March of 2022, Florida lawmakers voted to extend retroactive stipends to parents whose children were once enrolled in NICA but had been dropped from the rolls when the children died.