BRONZE AWARD: Michael J. Berens, a reporter at The Seattle Times, received the bronze award in the 2011 Barlett & Steele Awards for Investigative Business Journalism for his series “Seniors for Sale.”
By Michael J. Berens
Sometimes, a reporter’s most powerful attributes are curiosity and ignorance.
I routinely scour web-based news releases and disciplinary reports posted by state agencies. During one trek through the digital bins of the state’s largest agency, the Department of Social and Health Services, I uncovered several disciplinary actions against “adult family homes.” These places were a mystery to me.
There were nearly 3,000 of these state-licensed homes in Washington. They exist in most states. And the premise is simple: Empower ordinary homeowners to provide room and board for up to six elderly residents.
The attraction for the elderly is clear. Why live in a big-box nursing home with dozens or hundreds of patients? Instead, live in a cozy home and receive boutique care in a familiar neighborhood close to family and friends.
State officials said that Washington possessed one of the best adult home systems in the nation. Multiple federally-funded studies concurred.
But the reality was starkly different. Not because sources whispered secrets to me. Not because I received a packet of secret documents in the mail. The evidence was in plain sight, embedded inside hundreds of public state records.
The Seattle Times found that this rapidly growing, scantly regulated industry had attracted scores of profiteers, including homeowners who marketed seniors as investments. Some were sold only for cash.
“Start making money now!” teased one real estate listing for a Seattle-area adult home.
Our series, “Seniors for Sale,” detailed rampant abuse and neglect, often at the hands of untrained homeowners lured to the multimillion-dollar industry after losing their jobs or facing foreclosure on their homes.
The indiscriminate licensing of adult homes was tied to many tragic cases, such as a former McDonald’s worker who tried to lift an elderly woman and instead broke her neck, or a nurse aide who handed a lit cigarette to a frail woman on an oxygen tank, touching off a fiery explosion.
Scores of elderly residents were imprisoned in their rooms, roped into their beds at night, strapped into their chairs during the day because there wasn’t enough caregivers to watch everyone, drugged into submission or denied lifesaving medical care for weeks.
When embarking on an investigative project, here are some key strategies:
Follow the information. File a public record request for copies of computer database manuals and every blank form used by the agency. The goal is to track what kind of information is kept, where it’s stored and in what form (computer or paper). Think of it as an information blueprint.
In Washington, I learned that information on every adult home was divided into at least 12 state files or databases. Without this knowledge, I might have missed large swaths of vital records.
Know your universe. It’s important to know the contours of your story. For instance, I wanted to know how many adult homes had been licensed by the state; names of licensees; and current status of homes (open or closed). State manuals revealed the existence of an ownership database – a roster of every home licensed over the last decade. By tracking the ebb and flow of homes, I crafted a finding that for every four new homes licensed, three existing homes closed. This churn rate helped explain the industry’s instability. Also, by tabulating homes that had closed following disciplinary action, I developed a list of homes to examine more closely.
Develop inside sources. A pivotal resource was the state ombudsman office, a quasi-government watchdog (based in every state) for nursing homes, assisted living and adult homes. Strike pay dirt by asking the office to scour their emails for story-related topics. In my case, the office contacted the original senders and asked if they would like to talk with me. Many did.
Follow the paper. State agencies often create investigative reports involving complaints, each filled with rich narrative details. Identify the homes that are of most interest and request all the investigative reports. Don’t forget to ask for all the exhibits that accompany the investigation, which often includes letters written by the subject of the investigation.
For instance, state investigative reports often hold all the basics – who, what, where, when, why. Capture this information in an Excel spreadsheet, each column differentiating a variable. For example, the first few columns will be home name, address, owner name, etc. But you can track the exact number of victims, the nature of the abuse or neglect. That’s how I knew exactly how many seniors fatally choked on food or languished for days without treatment.
Follow the money. A useful strategy when pursuing any story, of course, is this Watergate-era axiom. This is especially true with senior care.
Not only do adult home owners hope to profit from providing care, so do the hundreds of senior placement agencies that earn lofty commissions for filling empty beds.
Do a web search for senior placement. You’ll undoubtedly find scores of companies that offer to help find placement for your loved one – for free! That’s right, you don’t pay anything.
But some companies fail to disclose commissions received from the homes (usually equaling one month’s rent). The question: Do these companies steer you to the best homes or the ones that pay the highest commission?
These are just a few basic techniques that may serve as a compass to countless stories embedded within state files, in plain sight, waiting to be discovered by an inquisitive reporter – like you.