united states project

These investigations by Florida papers deserve another look

Reporters at The Palm Beach Post, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, and Naples Daily News deserve recognition
January 5, 2015

MIAMI — The year 2014 is now behind us, but a few efforts by Florida newspapers over the past 12 months should not be forgotten. I’ve already written about some of the most creative, enterprising, and dogged investigative journalism I came across in the Sunshine State. Here’s a round-up of a few other notable investigations:

ŸŸŸŸŸŸŸŸŸŸŸHealthcare problems in private prisons. The Palm Beach Post’s Pat Beall followed up an important 2013 investigation into private prison contractors with a look at privatized prison healthcare. What she found was horrifying neglect, with cancer treated with over-the-counter pain medication or hot compresses, necessary surgeries delayed or denied, and death rates that soared after the private companies took over inmate care. From her story:

Handing off prison inmate medical care to for-profit companies was designed to deliver tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer savings beginning in 2012.

But for inmates, it has come with cold-blooded consequences, a Palm Beach Post investigation found.

Just months after all medical care in state prisons was privatized, the count of inmate deaths spiked to a 10-year high in January and continued at a record pace through July.

Even before Beall had finished her reporting, her questions to the Florida Department of Corrections had prompted state officials to reexamine its contract with one of the providers.

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“Liquidate, isolate, medicate.” The Sarasota Herald-Tribune dug into another form of official neglect and abuse, the state’s guardianship system. The paper’s Barbara Peters Smith found that the business of private guardians, who take over the financial and medical decisions of elderly individuals deemed unable to handle their own affairs, has grown exponentially and is ripe for abuse. Guardians are paid out of their wards’ assets and the secret court proceedings that authorize these financial take-overs make it all but impossible for the people caught in them to regain control over their lives: 

Talk to the social workers, guardians and attorneys who run this system, and you hear assurances of their good intentions and diligence in looking after people who have lost their rights to make decisions for themselves. 

But from family members and friends caught in the system against their will, stories emerge of a ruthless determination to take elders from their homes and make them conform to a one-size-fits-all process by which their belongings can be sold, and their family and friends shut out—until eventually they are locked away in institutions to decline and die. 

The critics call this process “liquidate, isolate, medicate.”

As the Baby Boomers begin to retire, and many of them move to Florida and away from their families, this dysfunctional system deserves more scrutiny around the state.

ŸLax oversight of charter schools. A few miles up the coast, the Naples Daily News took an in-depth look at the state’s charter schools and found poor oversight of taxpayer dollars or student achievement. Proponents of charter schools have hailed them as a way to give parents a choice in their children’s education while freeing innovative educators of the bureaucratic requirements of the state’s public schools.

The Daily News’ Jacob Carpenter found, however, that some charter school operators have been allowed to siphon off taxpayer education funds while failing to properly manage that money, or in some cases even provide decent educations to thousands of students. And some charter companies were allowed to open new taxpayer-funded schools, even as they were being forced to close schools they already operated:

Financial shortfalls were the most common reason for closure, affecting 64 of the 114 schools, yet the state requires zero upfront funding commitment to open a charter campus. In addition, 38 charter school governing boards mismanaged funds, provided lax oversight or failed to properly account for their spending. Despite this, the state doesn’t allow county school districts, which review and approve charter applications, to dig into the financial background of applicants.

Academic failures prompted the closure of 45 schools, most of which received back-to-back state-issued “F” grades. Poor academic performance continues to dog the state’s worst-performing charter schools, about 7 percent of which received an “F” in 2012-13, compared to about 3 percent of all traditional public schools.

There’s little in state law to prevent charter school operators that have already failed from receiving taxpayer money to try again. Should an applicant that has previously failed in Florida apply for a new school, its prior failure can’t be cited as a reason to deny its application.

All three of these investigations are noteworthy for what they found, and for their ambitious nature—these regional papers took on statewide issues. Let’s hope 2015 brings more aggressive investigating around Florida.

Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.