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ProPublica and Partners Win 2023 RFK Journalism Award

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights announced Wednesday that “Culture of Cruelty,” a ProPublica Local Reporting Network project, in collaboration with Lee Enterprises Midwest and Capitol News Illinois, won the RFK Domestic Print Award.

The series, by reporters Molly Parker from Lee Enterprises Midwest, who is a Distinguished Fellow with the Local Reporting Network, and Beth Hundsdorfer from Capitol News Illinois, 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 it 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 an interview with Parker and Hundsdorfer in March, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said that the state Department of Human Services had been working on improvements at Choate since he first took office in January 2019. But he said “it became clear, I would say certainly over the last year — and, in part, because of your reporting — that there were more significant changes that needed to be made.”

The state agency plans to dramatically reduce the number of patients with developmental disabilities who live at Choate. That process will start with the relocation of 123 residents with developmental disabilities who entered the facility voluntarily — roughly half the current population.

The agency also created a new position of chief resident safety officer to oversee security at all residential centers in the state. Illinois lawmakers have introduced legislation that would allow for enhanced penalties against employees who seek to interfere with abuse investigations by law enforcement and other oversight bodies. The governor said he supports the measure and plans to sign it when it reaches his desk.

See a list of all RFK Journalism Award winners.

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