The little girl and three of her siblings had been sexually abused by a relative. Her parents agreed to let me talk to the girl, 10, and two of the older siblings, as long as I did not identify them in any way.
They wanted the public to know what havoc sexual abuse creates in a family. It’s like gasoline that, once ignited, burns a path that’s not necessarily predictable but is certainly destructive.
I had been writing for the Deseret News for a while at that point, but I was just beginning to write about some of the devastating, delicate issues that affect children in America. And there had just been a couple of high-profile scandals involving national reporters and made-up or otherwise questionable sources. The story I wanted to tell was a powerful one, but I wanted no hint that the children I’d interviewed were hybrids or imaginary. So I contacted what was then the Casey Journalism Center for some suggestions on how to preserve the anonymity of the children while telling their story honestly. An expert at the center spent some time chatting about the best way to handle the situation.
To the public, it was pretty ordinary and perhaps even still suspect. I wrote that the names of the children had been changed to preserve their privacy. But from a journalism standpoint, we went one further. I made sure that my editor knew exactly who my sources were and talked to the father before the story ever ran. It was a layer of protection I might not have come up with on my own.
The Journalism Center on Children and Families, renamed from that earlier Casey Journalism Center, is going to close at the end of 2014, ending a 20-year run as one of the most reliable guides that journalists have had when it comes to reporting on what’s happening to the smallest Americans.
That is going to create a void not just for journalists who are negotiating tricky topics like child abuse and youth suicide, but for the public as well.
Though it changed its name, its focus remained the same: helping reporters tell deeper, more insightful stories about the lives of children. The center -- located at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism and funded largely by the Annie E. Casey Foundation -- has helped reporters find nonpartisan experts well-versed in issues affecting children, from poverty to immigration to health and more. It has also offered training modules to reporters on best practices when covering family issues. For me, it was often a go-to resource to understand the big picture affecting children in America.
Center director Julie Drizin sent out an email last week letting reporters and others know that funding was not going to be available from the foundation and the center would close.
It will go out in style, doing what it does best: telling the story of children and their families. The staff is about to release a project they’ve done with social workers called “Lifelines: Stories from the Human Safety Net.” In December, they plan to co-host with the Aspen Institute and Annie E. Casey Foundation an Aspen Forum on Journalism, Race and Society, Drizin said in the email.
As Drizin notes, the last few years have been tough for both journalism and for education. From a reporter’s perspective, it doesn’t seem like it’s been a cakewalk for kids, either. And it’s not always easy to separate experts from their politics when you’re telling the story of kids in America. The center helped a lot with that.
I think we’ll all miss their passion. It’s how Drizin ended her email: “Keep telling stories that change lives.”
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