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ProPublica and Partners Recognized as Dart Award Finalists

The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma announced on Thursday that two ProPublica projects — one in collaboration with the Miami Herald, a participating newsroom in the ProPublica Local Reporting Network, and the other with The New York Times — are finalists for the Dart Awards for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma.

In “Birth Rights,” a series on Florida’s Birth-Related Neurological Injury Compensation Association, Miami Herald reporters Carol Marbin Miller and Daniel Chang, in collaboration with ProPublica, investigated the program, which strips parents of brain-damaged newborns of their right to sue. In return, the program offers parents a one-time payment and promises to cover medical expenses throughout the child’s life. Yet NICA has frequently denied or delayed help for struggling families — sometimes spending tens of thousands more in legal fees fighting requests for benefits than it would cost to help parents who depend on the program to care for their children.

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 it was unworthy of help.

Hours after the initial story was published in April 2021, the state’s chief financial officer initiated an audit of the program that, months later, validated many of the reporters’ findings. By the end of the month, Florida lawmakers had passed sweeping legislation — later signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis — to increase benefits and protections for families of brain-damaged babies. The reforms included funding for mental health services, adding a parental representative to the program’s board of directors and retroactively compensating families. The following day, the executive director of NICA announced a host of additional reforms that went beyond those mandated by lawmakers. By the end of the year, the program’s executive director had resigned, ending a nearly two-decade term at the helm of the organization.

Lost Inside,” by Lizzie Presser in collaboration with The New York Times, examines America’s unregulated, often dangerous shadow foster care system — an informal arrangement in which caseworkers remove kids from their homes and place them with friends or family without going through the courts. While some families prefer it to the formal foster care system, it offers few of the protections or benefits they’d normally get: no court hearings or lawyers, no services for kids, often no regular oversight or check-ins from caseworkers and inadequate financial support for caregivers. There’s also no judge deciding if a department has a legal basis to remove a child to begin with.

An estimated 250,000 children are moved into this shadow system each year, roughly the same number as those who are removed from their homes and placed in formal foster care. The story features sisters Molly and Heaven Cordell, who were illegally separated from their family by North Carolina’s Cherokee County Department of Social Services and placed in what some scholars call “hidden foster care” when they were 15 and 14 years old. Molly, who had previously been suicidal, received no mental health care, lost access to her medication and was essentially homeless. Days after our reporting was published, Cherokee County agreed to a $4 million settlement with Molly, now 21.

See a list of all Dart Award finalists.

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