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2018 Whistleblower of the Year Candidate - The Center for Investigative Reporting and Reveal

Posted  January 4, 2019

Whistleblowers are usually thought of as courageous individuals who come forward from the shadows to speak truth to power.  But sometimes whistleblowers are instead organizations that seek out the shadows in order to bring them into the light.  The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) is one such organization.  Founded in 1977, CIR’s mission is to “engage and empower the public through investigative journalism and groundbreaking storytelling that sparks actions, improves lives and protects our democracy.”  Working in collaboration with other media organizations, CIR’s dedicated and award-winning reporters have carried out this mission by casting light on some of the darkest corners of American society, including government fraud and waste of taxpayer funds, environmental degradation, and threats to public safety.  You may have heard their compelling and insightful stories on “Reveal,” a nationally distributed radio show and podcast co-produced with PRX.  These stories, and CIR’s investigative reporting generally, have led to civil and criminal investigations, inspired the enactment of new laws and policies, spawned community action, and changed lives.

In the past year, one CIR report, in particular, stands out as embodying the highest standards of investigative journalism and the contribution that whistleblowers make to society.  The report, published on Reveal, focuses on the abuse and neglect of individuals in private care homes for developmentally disabled adults, and in government-run immigration detention centers.  In the first part of the episode, Audrey Quinn, a reporter with WNYC, tells the story of Willy Lampson, a young man with severe autism who was placed by his family in a residential home in central Florida called Carlton Palms.  Willy died in March 2018 after suffering what the facility reportedly told his family were self-inflicted head wounds.  But Quinn makes a convincing case, based in part on Willy’s autopsy report, that his tragic death was actually the result of severe abuse and neglect by the facility’s staff and could have been prevented.

Even more troubling, Quinn reveals, as part of her CIR investigation, that Willy’s death was not an isolated incident but one of many cases of severe abuse and neglect of residents at facilities owned by Carlton Palms’ parent company, Bellwether Behavioral Health.  She provides evidence that Bellwether, which operates Medicaid-funded facilities in multiple states, turned behavioral health services into a lucrative business at taxpayer expense by hiring fewer staff with less experience and lower salaries, and quietly settling lawsuits by aggrieved families.  For example, Quinn reports that, at the time of her investigation, Bellwether was the largest provider of residential care for developmentally disabled adults in New Jersey, operating sixty facilities and caring for 450 adults.  But last year the number of times that New Jersey officials investigated complaints of abuse and neglect at Bellwether homes was six times the average rate per bed as at other large group homes.  Nevertheless, Bellwether was paid $67 million for this allegedly substandard care.  Digging deeper, Quinn finds that Bellwether is controlled by a New York private equity firm, Wellspring Capital Management.  Her inquiries have led the New Jersey Department of Human Services to impose a moratorium on the state’s referral of patients to Bellwether facilities, and prompted government investigations.

The second part of the same Reveal episode features reporting on government-run immigration detention centers by CIR investigative fellow Elly Yu, who is currently a reporter with WAMU in Washington DC.  Yu tells the story of Jean Carlo, a young man who was brought to the United States from Panama by his parents as a child and awarded DACA status in 2013.  Following President Trump’s Executive Order in January 2017 expanding the category of people eligible for deportation, Jean was taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents because he had three misdemeanor convictions and placed in a detention center in Georgia.  Despite suffering from schizophrenia and jumping off a second-floor balcony to kill himself, ICE officials allegedly put him in solitary confinement without taking any suicide prevention measures.  He was found dead with a sheet around his neck a short time later.  Yu investigated the circumstances of Jean’s death, and found evidence that ICE understaffed the Georgia facility and provided inadequate care to detainees.  Her report is a chilling reminder of the vulnerability of immigration detainees, particularly those suffering from mental illness.

For their innovative and impactful investigative reporting, which for more than forty years has shined a light on corporate greed, fraud and waste of taxpayer funds, and government corruption, we nominate the Center for Investigative Reporting and Reveal for Whistleblowers of the Year.

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