A version of this post originally ran at the USC Center for Health Journalism. Sign up to be a Center for Health Journalism Member, sign or for its newsletter or follow the Center on Facebook or Twitter.
HERE’S A LESSON FOR JOURNALISTS hoping to investigate how America’s opioid crisis stretches beyond ambulances, hospitals and clinics: Sometimes the information we don’t have is even more important than what we know.
In a recent story for Reveal, I showed that many states hit hard by the opioid crisis are also seeing a spike in foster care placements. Yet despite evidence of a serious problem, there’s no way to specify which drugs, exactly, are pushing kids into the system. In most cases, the broad designation of “substance abuse” is all that gets logged by social workers on the ground.
Federal data is patchy, too. Even though data from Health and Human Services tells us that “Drug Abuse (Parent)” was responsible for more than a third of all child removals nationwide in fiscal year 2016, there’s no telling how many of those were prompted by opioids — or methamphetamines, or marijuana, or any other drugs, for that matter. Citing unreliable state reporting, the government didn’t even start publicly specifying why children were removed from parents’ custody until 2015.
This breakdown matters, experts told me, because it’s hard to create policies for a population you can’t even count.
Overdose rates were ticking upward, and so were foster care admissions—that much had been reported. But how much of it was causal?
“Are there enough rehabilitation services available for these families?” asked Elissa Glucksman Hyne, a senior policy analyst at the child welfare nonprofit Children’s Rights. “If not, how do we get the funding for them at the state level? At the federal level? Whatever it may be, it’s very difficult to budget when you don’t actually have a good idea about how many families are being affected.”
I’ll be honest: This was not the story I set out to report. My first questions, as I began digging into the opioid crisis’ effects on kids, were broad: What happens to the children of people who overdose? What steps are states taking to ensure that they don’t fall through the cracks? How well-equipped is America to deal with an influx of “opioid orphans”?
Those questions led me to excellent reporting in The Washington Post and Mother Jones—stories that showed, in wrenching detail, how addiction can pull families apart. Yet I still didn’t have a grasp on the issue’s scale. Overdose rates were ticking upward, and so were foster care admissions—that much had been reported. But how much of it was causal?
As the numbers trickled in from state health agencies, they presented more questions than answers. Before long, it became clear to me that these questions weren’t a barrier to the story; they were the story
IN AN EFFORT TO better understand the issue, I submitted public records requests to a dozen states whose age-adjusted rate of overdose deaths was the highest in the nation in 2015, the latest year for which CDC data was available.
The stats I got back showed that big chunks of America’s child welfare infrastructure aren’t necessarily built to account for a drug crisis. As the numbers trickled in from state health agencies, they presented more questions than answers. Before long, it became clear to me that these questions weren’t a barrier to the story; they were the story.
There are other stories out there, and public records are an excellent entry point for explaining the opioid crisis’ peripheral effects on small communities. Reporters interested in covering the issue at a local level can follow these pointers:
Think about who else is affected
Yes, public health agencies are grappling with the opioid crisis continuously. But it’s also worth asking who else is being pulled in to deal with the damage. Are jails filling up? Are fire departments being forced to choose between blazes and overdoses? Are animal welfare agencies overflowing with neglected pets? It’s important to understand the opioid crisis’ complex ripples, and public records are a great place to start.
Keep an open mind
Responses to your public records requests might turn up the exact outcome you expected. But more often, they’ll lead you down a road you hadn’t anticipated. Don’t be stubborn about the story you intended to report. Instead, be open to exploring new angles as your findings dictate them.
Listen to the community
Bombshell stories are great, but it’s also important to familiarize yourself with what your readers need. If people struggling with addiction in your town don’t know where to seek treatment, isn’t it more productive to explain that to them, rather than harp on the problem?
Be open to criticism
The response to my story, especially among people in the child welfare establishment, was overwhelmingly positive. But some were quick to point out that my story didn’t do struggling families justice; rather, it presumed that foster care was the inevitable result of any type of addiction, when in reality there’s a variety of intermediate options to explore before a child is removed. These were valid inputs, and they will inform my reporting on the topic going forward.