The Miami Herald won the 30th Annual Joseph L. Brechner Freedom of Information Award for its groundbreaking investigative series, “Innocents Lost.”
Two Herald reporters, Carol Marbin Miller and Audra D.S. Burch, investigated Florida’s child welfare system by following the lives – and deaths – of children within the system.
As part of the three-year-long investigation, the reporters pored over thousands of documents, uncovering a system that was clearly broken, leaving children unprotected and at risk. The Herald was forced to file three public records lawsuits demanding access to many of the documents about the treatment of the children and their caregivers. They found Florida agencies consistently failed to provide adequate treatment for drug-addicted parents, neglected to implement adequate safety plans to protect children from abusive or neglectful caregivers, and hid in the shadows of Florida’s open records law.
“This outstanding series demonstrates one of the most important reasons for a strong public records law, protecting children, the most defenseless and vulnerable members of our society,” Sandra F. Chance, executive director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, said. “By using the law that allows the public to hold our government accountable, the reporters were able tell the stories of 477 children who died and the public officials who failed them.”
In particular, The Miami Herald reported that the Florida Department of Children and Families and the Department of Health attempted to under-report cases of death or neglect. As a result, the Florida legislature amended the state child welfare statutes to better protect children. Following the series, the Florida Legislature changed the Florida law and allocated an extra $50 million to family service and child abuse investigators.
“These dedicated reporters spent years combing through Florida’s public records laws to uncover massive waste, abuse and neglect in the state’s child welfare system. The responsible agencies were anything but responsive to requests for information,” Chance said. “This lack of transparency allowed bureaucrats and political appointees to hide the heartbreaking reality that children in the system were dying and there was no accountability.”
Marbin Miller will discuss the award-winning series at the April 11 Florida Free Speech Forum luncheon. Marbin Miller has been an investigative reporter at the Herald since 2000 and her work has led to the passage or reform of almost 10 state laws about children and vulnerable adults.
The Brechner Freedom of Information Award is dedicated to recognizing excellence in reporting about freedom of information, access to government-held information, and the First Amendment. The award was established by the late Joseph L. Brechner, an Orlando broadcaster. Winners receive a $3000 cash award. Past winners include The Washington Post, The Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, and The Ledger (Lakeland).
Located at the University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville, Fla., the Brechner Center exists to educate and promote freedom of information laws and policies. It serves the students of UF, Florida citizens, media lawyers and journalists around the country by providing training sessions, answering queries and conducting scholarly research on freedom of information and First Amendment issues.