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ProPublica Illinois Wins 7 Peter Lisagor Awards

ProPublica Illinois won seven Peter Lisagor Awards on Friday for best multimedia collaboration, best illustration, best data journalism, best education reporting, best non-deadline reporting and best feature story, in addition to the contest’s Watchdog Award. Presented by the Chicago Headline Club, the nation’s largest chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the Lisagor Awards recognize exemplary journalism produced in Illinois and Northwest Indiana.

The Quiet Rooms,” a collaboration with the Chicago Tribune, won the Watchdog Award, which honors Chicago-area news reporting that calls attention to situations in which the public is being harmed or poorly served. The series also won Lisagor Awards for best multimedia collaboration, best data journalism and best education reporting. The stories by ProPublica Illinois reporter Jodi S. Cohen, the Tribune’s Jennifer Smith Richards and former ProPublica Illinois reporting fellow Lakeidra Chavis showed how Illinois schools frequently put children in stark “isolated timeout” spaces, or physically restrained them, for reasons that violated state law.

The day after the first story in the series was published, Illinois’ governor and state education officials committed to sweeping change, beginning with emergency restrictions. State officials banned locked seclusion immediately, put new restrictions on schools’ use of physical restraint and also announced plans to invest $7.5 million over the next three years to train Illinois educators on more positive ways to work with students.

You’re Destroying Families” by Melissa Sanchez and Duaa Eldeib, with illustrations by Lydia Fu, won for best non-deadline reporting and best illustration. Co-published with the Chicago Sun-Times, the story reveals the failures of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to serve Spanish-speaking families whose children enter the foster care system. The investigation revealed that the agency’s breakdowns span decades, violating a 1977 federal consent decree. In some cases, lapses caused workers to miss key information in investigations of abuse and neglect, contributing to the injuries and deaths of children in state care. In their reporting, Sanchez and Eldeib also found that the legal aid organization assigned to represent Spanish-speaking, Latino families in Illinois had failed to ensure the state was doing its job.

As a result of the investigation, agency officials implemented multiple reforms, including hiring more bilingual staff, recruiting more bilingual foster families and updating internal systems to better track whether children of Spanish-speaking parents were being placed in homes where that language is spoken. In addition, the legal aid organization responsible for monitoring the state’s compliance with the court order went back to federal court for the first time in nearly a decade, and it has now sought records that would allow it to scrutinize the agency’s compliance.

The Legend of A-N-N-A" by Logan Jaffe won for best feature story or series. Co-published with The Atlantic, the story uncovered the history of Anna, Illinois, and other nearly all-white “sundown towns” where, historically, black people were not welcome after dark. For the story, Jaffe visited Anna again and again over 18 months, establishing a trust that allowed people to speak candidly and to examine their world with clearer eyes. To ground her reporting in a deep understanding of Anna’s history and context, she also pored through centuries-old census records, listened to oral histories and examined microfilm of long-gone newspapers.

The story sparked meaningful conversations in Anna, on community Facebook pages, among residents’ everyday lives and even from the pulpit. A number of the town’s current and former residents wrote to Jaffe to thank her for her nuanced portrait.

See a list of all this year’s Peter Lisagor Award winners here.

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