The Association of Health Care Journalists announced Wednesday that ProPublica Illinois’ “Stuck Kids” series won an Award for Excellence in Health Care Journalism in the health policy category, and “Half-Life,” a collaboration between the Santa Fe New Mexican and ProPublica, won in the public health category.
“Stuck Kids,” by ProPublica Illinois reporter Duaa Eldeib, exposed how hundreds of Illinois children spent weeks, and sometimes months, in psychiatric hospitals after doctors had cleared them for release. As they waited for the state’s child welfare agency to find them more appropriate homes, they were trapped inside locked facilities — deteriorating mentally and behaviorally — despite a state law mandating that children in state care live in the “least restrictive” setting. In addition to revealing the failure of the child welfare system to find appropriate placements for children, the stories also detailed disturbing allegations of sexual and physical abuse, as well as patient safety violations, at a psychiatric hospital the state relies on to treat hundreds of children in its care.
Following publication, lawmakers convened a bipartisan legislative hearing to force Illinois Department of Children and Family Services officials to explain why they routinely failed to find placements for children in psychiatric hospitals. A federal judge appointed an independent monitor to oversee agency reforms for the first time in more than two decades, the Cook County public guardian filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of children stuck in psychiatric hospitals and DCFS’ own inspector general launched an investigation into children languishing in psychiatric hospitals. In addition, DCFS stopped sending children in its care to the psychiatric hospital where there were allegations of abuse and removed those who were still there.
“Half-Life” by reporter Rebecca Moss of the Santa Fe New Mexican — a participant in the 2018 ProPublica Local Reporting Network — explored ongoing worker health and safety issues at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the birthplace of the atomic bomb. While the government claims that nuclear safety issues were only a Cold War problem, workers say that the lab has not accurately tracked their radiation exposure, and that they are being denied benefits as a result. The series found that lab contractors have amassed more than $110 million in fines and lost performance bonuses for serious accidents, radiation exposure and other lapses since 2006. Moss also reported that the government has made it difficult for workers to get compensation for radiation-linked cancers, revealing a 10-year delay on a petition that would grant benefits to those who could prove they had such cancers. Hundreds of workers who began working at the lab after the Cold War have died waiting for answers.
As a result of this reporting, dozens of additional workers and their friends have come forward with reports of occupational illnesses at Los Alamos, unreported accidents and problems accessing benefits. Former federal officials, including ex-Energy Secretary Bill Richardson and former OSHA chief David Michaels, have called for Congress to reform the benefits program to better help recent workers.
In addition, a ProPublica collaboration with Wondery, “Dr. Death,” won third place in the investigative category. The story examined the case of Christopher Duntsch, a neurosurgeon who practiced in Dallas from 2011 to 2013. He earned the nickname Dr. Death after the vast majority of his patients ended up severely injured. Two died. The story not only looks at Duntsch’s actions, but how the health care system was complicit in the tragedy.
See a list of all the Award for Excellence in Health Care Journalism winners here.