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Barlett & Steele winner Michael J. Berens: Ask for forms, manuals upfront

In this video included in Michael J. Berens’ “Seniors for Sale” package, Ann Detlefs of Everett, Wash., recalls the nightmare of finding bruises on her husband, Darwin, in an adult family home.

Nursing homes normally get all the scrutiny when it comes to elder care. But last year, Michael J. Berens of The Seattle Times showed that abuse isn’t isolated to nursing homes. His series on adult family homes uncovered more than 230 unreported deaths that indicated neglect. He writes in part one:

“The Times uncovered accounts of elderly victims who were imprisoned in their rooms, roped into their beds at night, strapped to chairs during the day so they wouldn’t wander off, drugged into submission or left without proper medical treatment for weeks.

In a Shoreline home, a worker whose previous experience was at McDonald’s broke a resident’s neck when attempting to move her from her bed. At a Seattle home, a worker handed a lit cigarette to a resident who was connected to an oxygen tank, setting off a fiery explosion.”

His series was the bronze winner in this year’s Barlett & Steele Awards in Investigative Business Journalism they recognize the best in investigative business journalism.

Today’s Tip: File public records requests for all blank forms and manuals to navigate around computer databases.

Seattle Times reporter Michael J. Berens

Michael J. Berens

“It’s a good technique for understanding the maze of information,” Mike says. “It’s like having an inside source whisper: ‘Here’s where the information’s kept, and here’s how you can get it.’”

Mike’s request landed him about 1,000 pages. He says having that inside scoop empowers reporters because they know what’s available and can then counter the excuses offered by officials. For instance, when he was told printing information would be too costly or the files were too large to save, he pointed out that information can be exported to Microsoft Excel and emailed, he says.

“When I file requests I can say I want database A with 10 fields of information – very specific things,” he says. “It gives me negotiating leverage because they know I already know what they keep.”

For the series, he knew that the state tracked the educational background of those operating the homes. “That was important when showing an individual is ill-equipped and untrained.”

About the Author

Rosland Gammon is a former business journalist turned college instructor. Her newsroom experience includes reporting for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and reporting and editing at Bloomberg News. Gammon currently teaches communications at Alverno College in Milwaukee. Follow her daily posts. | E-mail: Rosland Gammon

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