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Investigative reporter reveals her process

Alexandra Zayas appeared at USC to discuss her tenacious approach to covering a three-part series on the abuse of children in Florida. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

Tampa Bay Times reporter Alexandra Zayas, who visited USC earlier this month to accept this year’s Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting, led a lunchtime forum for student journalists to offer professional advice and encouragement.

Zayas’ reporting project, which consisted of a three-part series titled “In God’s Name,” revealed ongoing abuse at children’s homes. The research took one year to investigate and revealed that children’s homes are allowed to operate unlicensed and unregulated by any government agency in Florida if they claim a religious affiliation.

The project included video interviews, footage shot inside the homes and a searchable list of homes with substantiated abuse cases.

To report the story, Zayas, alongside Times photographer Kathleen Flynn, used public records, interviewed dozens of children and families who had previously attended the homes and gained access to the facilities.

The judging panel for the $35,000 annual award, presented for the past 24 years by the School of Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, hailed the “doggedness” Zayas demonstrated in reporting the story.

“The series documents Florida’s utter abdication of regulation of these homes and shows how families were misled in entrusting their sons and daughters to religious-based camps with no accountability to anyone,” the panel stated. “The story was well-organized and its multimedia presentation compelling and powerful.”

Zayas explained in the forum how the story started. She said the seed that catapulted her project was an email dated back to August 2011 from someone whose friend had a family member inside a “boot camp”-style home in the Florida Panhandle.

After meeting the woman, Zayas quickly found several anonymous stories on online forums and message boards accusing the home of excessive discipline and of forcing children to undergo excessive exercise. Those tips, along with several Google searches and new archives, allowed her to find several scattered stories over the years of sex abuse allegations, accounts of children kept in isolation and even a survivors network for former students of one home.

Meanwhile, Zayas figured out that the only agency regulating self-proclaimed religious children’s homes in Florida is a nonprofit made up of people who run the homes — a group that is regulating itself.

Group homes in general have to be licensed, but this agency — called the Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies (FACCCA) — teamed up with a legislator in 1984 to get an exemption passed for homes that claim they’re Christian-affiliated. So instead of being overseen by the government, the homes are overseen by the FACCCA.

“It’s a self-regulating, private group that allows corporal punishment,” Zayas said. “Another thing I found out was that no one had ever taken a thorough look at them. All of this was a green light telling me to keep looking at FACCCA.”

Since the homes are private and located mostly in rural and isolated areas, Florida’s famously open laws regarding public records laws were not a silver bullet. Zayas, though, was able to get one-line summaries of each abuse allegation from the state Department of Children and Families.

She also went to each law enforcement agency whose jurisdiction included one of the homes and asked them for every interaction they’d had with the facilities. She found 165 allegations of abuse and neglect in just the past decade alone.

Zayas also searched lawsuits filed by former students and their families. She ended up with stories — corroborated by witnesses — of students being forced to stand until they urinated, confined in isolation for days and exercised until they vomited who were being bruised, bloodied, shackled, pinned down and choked into unconsciousness.

At the forum, Zayas showed students and faculty clips of interviews she conducted inside the facilities with the pastors, children and a self-appointed “colonel” of one military-style school. She and Flynn traveled around the state, gaining access to the homes to see the operations for themselves.

Gaining access, Zayas said, was probably the most important part of the investigation. Talking to those who run the homes, hearing their side and seeing how they operate made it a much stronger account, she said.

“Being able to go there and experience it for myself allowed us to tell a much more fair story,” Zayas said.

She also explained how she got into the homes. Gaining entry into the homes was not easy — her first set of informal emails that breezily asked for a visit were ignored.

“By August, I was able to send an email that looked like this: ‘I’ve spoken to 10 former students who attended the school while you served as its leader, eight of whom were there in the last two years. Each one described your system of discipline and control as one in which girls tackle, restrain, supervise and discipline other girls.’ ”

Soon after, Zayas said, “the preacher let us in.”

After Zayas’ story was published, that school — the Lighthouse of Northwest Florida — was closed. Zayas also found that the state of Florida was sending foster children to unlicensed homes, which is illegal. The Florida Department of Children and Families pulled those children out after the stories ran.

Seeing inside the homes also brought home how these children were affected by the abuse, she said. At one home where children were forced to eat “stuff” — punishment food that consisted of bowls of vegetables swimming in vinegar — Zayas ate a bowl herself. Afterward, she suffered a stomachache that lasted three days.

Besides outlining for her audience exactly how she reported the story, Zayas offered several tips for young journalists embarking on an enterprise story:

  • Keeping your editor in the loop will keep them interested and give you precious time for reporting.
  • Write from the very beginning of the reporting process. Especially when working with a lot of documents and interviews, it’s important to document your findings. “From that very first memo I wrote to my boss, I gave him weekly memos. … Writing from the beginning is such a great way to organize your thoughts and digest all of the massive amounts of information you’re getting.”
  • Stay organized. With every interview, Zayas condensed the information to a paragraph and gave the synopsis to her editor, who was able to look at what she was gathering with a critical eye. Organization time is not wasted time.
  • List findings early. “It’s kind of like being able to see a Polaroid picture as it’s developing. You get all of the findings, and they start getting sharper and sharper.”
  • Don’t settle for low hanging fruit. Zayas recalled that she wanted to publish several accounts she’d gathered from a decade ago, but her editor pushed her to find more current information, which made the story more powerful.
  • Don’t make assumptions about access. “I thought no one in their right mind would let me into these places, and they did.”
Investigative reporter reveals her process

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