Investigating Mental Health, Trauma

Atlanta — The shielding of records about children in public care has "done more to harm children and protect adults than anything else," said Jane Hansen of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. She spoke on a panel on mental-health issues co-sponsored by the Dart Center at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Atlanta.

Atlanta — The shielding of records about children in public care has "done more to harm children and protect adults than anything else," said Jane Hansen of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. She spoke on a panel on mental-health issues co-sponsored by the Dart Center at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Atlanta.

Moderated by National Public Radio’s Daniel Zwerdling, the panel also included Kristen Lombardi of The Boston Phoenix; Suzanne O’Malley, journalist and author of Are You There Alone? The Unspeakable Crime of Andrea Yates; and Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the author of Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America. Four hundred journalists heard the discussion at the Carter Presidential Center.

For many years Jane Hansen has written about issues affecting children. She has written series about child prostitution, the effects of crack cocaine on children, sex offenders and Megan’s Law, and she’s done two projects in the past 15 years about the failures of Georgia’s child welfare system, reporting about children who have died after entering that system.

Hansen said her approach to these stories has been to combine a broad, statistical view with a look at the personal stories of those affected. Without the statistics, she said, readers won’t know if an individual’s story is part of a larger pattern; without the personal stories, the statistics can become “numbing,” and readers may avoid putting lives and faces behind the numbers.

One of the main difficulties in writing about these issues, Hansen said, is acquiring official records of children who have been killed or injured. Those records are most often sealed. “The rules and regulations of confidentiality have done more to harm children and protect adults than anything else,” she said. “I would argue that confidentiality has contributed directly to the deaths of children; it’s contributed to their enslavement, their abuse, their incarceration, their lack of civil rights and their invisibility.”

She added, “Whether children are the victims of abuse and neglect, sexual exploitation or mental illness, too often the plight of those children is withheld from the public. And I believe it’s up to us as journalists to keep battering away at that fortress and, ultimately, to bring it down.”

Kristen Lombardi, a 2003 Dart Ochberg Fellow, has also experienced the difficulties of covering children’s mental health and trauma issues. She has reported extensively in recent years about the abuse of children by Catholic priests in Boston (she broke the story) and about the failings of the family court system. Her solution has been to build relationships with lawyers, therapists and case workers. “I had to go to them and ask them to give me, basically off-the-record, their copies of these sealed documents,” Lombardi said. “It took a lot of coaxing, because they could have gotten in a lot of trouble, so I had to promise things like not quoting actual documentation verbatim ... That was the only way I could get my hands on these records.”

Initially, Lombardi said, few priest-abuse victims were willing to speak with her for the record. When she began her reporting, 86 adult victims had filed civil lawsuits, but at least half of those plaintiffs had filed their legal actions anonymously. Of those who were named, only five agreed to speak with Lombardi about their abuse, either on or off the record.

“I found the best way to gain access to victims, or at least to their family members, was to approach their trusted confidants first: the lawyers who were handling their cases, therapists who had been treating them for years,” Lombardi said. “One of the most important things that I did to gain the trust of the victims and their families was to explain at the outset that what I was interested in doing was a long-term project, an investigative piece. I was really just reassuring them that I was not aiming to do child sexual abuse in a quick-and-dirty fashion, and people began opening up at that point.”

After her first story about Priest-abuse was published in the Phoenix in March 2001, she began receiving phone calls from victims wanting to share their stories with her. “It was as if I had passed some kind of test within the survivor community,” she said.

In her reporting about the Andrea Yates case, Suzanne O’Malley, facing intense competition from local and national reporters, focused on showing respect to her sources. She never knocked on a door unannounced, demanding an interview, she said. “I choose not to do that, and I’m probably not capable, morally, of doing that.”

Instead, she focused on what she called “old-fashioned” reporting techniques: “I write letters,” she said. “I introduce myself. I say what it is I want. I say I’ll call them in a couple days, or they can call me if they wish. It’s amazing how many doors that simple thing opens.”

O’Malley gave serious attention to the mental-health issues in the case. Examining Yates’ medical records, which were part of the courtroom evidence, she discovered that Yates had been misdiagnosed, and that the medicine she had been prescribed to treat depression had had an amplifying effect on her proper diagnosis, which wasn’t discovered until a year after her arrest: bipolar disorder. O’Malley said that the harmful reaction between the medication and Yates’ mania likely contributed to the murder of Yates’ five children.


Self Care for Journalists

The fourth member of the panel, psychiatrist and author Jonathan Shay, focused on the issue of psychological self care for journalists.

“Anybody who has a constant diet of exposure to severely traumatized people will become injured themselves if they do not have a community context within which they can metabolize this,” Shay said. “If you hear trauma narratives, for instance, from prostituted children, from targets of incest, from grandparents of murdered grandchildren, this makes you a witness to atrocity — just simply hearing this narrative from this trauma survivor.”

Shay asked the panelists how they took care of themselves while covering such difficult stories.

Hansen said that one of the hardest times in her career was during a year-long project in which she spent 7 to 8 hours a day reading files about dead children, in order to build a database. “It was grueling work,” she said. “The worst thing for me was realizing that all of these children had died anonymously. No one knew how they had lived, and no one knew how they had died.”

She said her job as a journalist helped her give meaning to the difficult task. She said she told herself: “If I do it right, the public will respond and really the burden then becomes lifted.”

Shay said that social interaction with peers is a valuable tool for “metabolizing” stress. “Many people who escape injury are quite unaware of the resources that they have had that allowed that to happen,” he said.

Hansen agreed that talking with other journalists helps. “It’s obviously very helpful to be able to tell people what you’ve seen, what you’re looking at, what kinds of horrible things today you encountered when you did your reporting,” she said.

Lombardi spoke about the emotional effects of covering child-abuse cases. “Looking back, yes, I was definitely emotionally affected in the months that I was immersed in these projects,” she said.

“I spent hours with victims in order to get them to open up, starting with very basic questions, asking them about themselves and what they liked and their background,” she explained. “Then slowly broaching the topic of their abuser, and how they met their abuser, and then slowly getting into the actual abuse. And I found that, just listening to people — they would tell you very graphic details about their sexual abuse. And then I would be listening to these very disturbing accounts. And then I got to go back to my office, where people were running around and talking about whatever President Bush did that day, or something like that. And I found it very hard to decompress and switch gears. I found myself having lots of nightmares.”

“When I did the family court series, I read a lot of documentation,” she said. The documents contained transcripts of “therapists and child-abuse investigators interviewing 2, 3, 4, 5-year-old children; and in their own words, they would say things like — they would describe sex games that they had played with their parents ...”

“Even though it was in print, and I wasn’t face to face with the child,” Lombardi said. “I could still imagine it.”