They are the littlest victims of the opioid crisis: Tens of thousands of children forced into foster care because of a parent’s drug use. On Nov. 30, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released data from 2016 showing new foster care cases involving parents using drugs have hit the highest point in more than three decades of record-keeping, accounting for 92,000 children entering the system last year.
Less than two weeks after that data was released, the AP transmitted a package of stories focused on the crisis in two of the states with the biggest one-year increases: Indiana and Georgia.
The project, which wins this week’s Best of the States award, came about thanks to an analysis begun months earlier by Washington-based data journalist Meghan Hoyer. Hoyer worked with an analyst at the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect to access exclusive county-level data on foster care entries over the past 15 years, giving the AP a unique, comprehensive and localized look at the reasons children were entering the system, how long they stayed and where they were placed.
That data allowed New York-based national writer Matt Sedensky to focus his story on Indiana, where parental drug use was increasingly cited as the reason for foster care removals. Sedensky convinced the chief juvenile court judge in Indianapolis to grant him access to courtrooms and case files normally shielded from public view. He spent several days shadowing her in her work and sitting in on the proceedings of other judges. In the hearings, he heard heart-wrenching accounts of opioids’ effect on users’ children, and approached those struggling with addiction to ask them to share their stories. He also worked to get a foster care caseworker to let him follow her as she visited families caring for children removed from their birth parents’ custody, and spent time with adoptive families, medical professionals and others touched by the influx due to opioid addiction.
Readers sent emails of thanks. Several wrote to say they were inspired to become foster parents.
The president of an Indiana foster care agency wrote with “deep thanks” for telling “the story of the silent faces of this crisis.” Readers sent emails saying “thanks for going in-depth” and “wire stories are often cut short without satisfying closure, but I loved this one.” Several wrote to say they were inspired to become foster parents.
A second story, by national writer David Crary, also based in New York, zoomed in on one mother who had lost her three daughters to foster care and her battle to overcome addiction and win them back through a drug court program that is increasingly becoming an option for parents faced with losing permanent custody of their kids. Using contacts developed through his ongoing coverage of child welfare, Crary was able to find several participants in the family drug court in north Georgia willing to share their stories of going through a rigorous multi-year substance abuse program.
In interviews and email exchanges over several months, mother of three Kim Silvers told wrenching details of her experience – including an interview at her joyous graduation ceremony after completing the program. Her eldest daughter, Emily, also spoke with AP – recounting what it was like to look after her younger sisters while her mom was debilitated by addiction.
David Goldman, Alex Sanz, Michael Conroy and Darron Cummings shot powerful photos and videos in Indiana and Georgia.
Managing Editor Brian Carovillano called the package “great and powerful work. From Meghan’s work sourcing and interpreting the data, to first-class reporting, storytelling and design by the whole team, this is another very strong entry in what has been an amazing run of AP enterprise.”
For providing moving insight into the plight of the youngest victims of the opioid crisis and the struggle of some families to break free, Hoyer, Sedensky and Crary share this week’s Best of the States prize.