When a Child Dies

“Fatal Care” — Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The series started with a smile — a baby photo of Christopher Thomas sitting in his bouncy seat beaming directly into the camera. The joy in the 13-month-old's face made the news of his beating death seem all the more senseless. Christopher was killed by his 24-year-old aunt, in whose care state officials had placed him even though a suburban couple that had been raising him was trying to adopt him.

Child welfare officials were furious that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran the photo and printed comments by the foster parents who felt they could have saved the Christopher's life if they had kept him. Partly because of his smile and partly because bureaucrats seemed so indifferent about his welfare, the story — followed quickly by news of three other children dying in Milwaukee's child welfare system — pushed a tender button in the community.

“The animosity about these stories was so high. People involved in the system like case workers and foster families were just dying to talk about it,” says Journal Sentinel reporter Crocker Stephenson, who covered the news of Christopher's death.

Stephenson's own infuriation motivated his reporting. He describes a phone call to the Milwaukee Bureau of Child Welfare a few days after Christopher died about why the boy's body was still sitting unclaimed at the morgue.

“That was the day I really lost it. Christopher's biological parents were confused. I'd been in contact with the foster family who wanted to pay for a funeral and get the boy buried. But the head of the department wouldn't come to the phone because her assistant said she was in a meeting. I asked if she would be in the meeting for an hour because I'd hold for an hour. She said she didn't know. I asked if she would be in a meeting for two hours. She said she didn't know. I asked if she would be three hours, or if she was just sitting at her desk while a baby's body was sitting at the morgue and she basically was avoiding my phone call. Her assistant became very quiet and said the department head would call me back. That call never came,” he says.

What followed were two years of reporting by Stephenson — including a year working on the project with reporter Gina Barton and photographer Kristyna Wentz-Graff. All three say they had the full backing of their editors, who gave the paper's “watchdog team” as long as they needed to analyze the bureaucracy and unveil the secrecy in the child welfare system. “Our editors wanted us to be as aggressive and as focused on this as possible,” Barton says.

The result: their discovery that at least 21 more children died while in contact with the bureau despite signs they were at risk. Behind those statistics were clear patterns of obfuscating, red tape and systemic neglect.

For Barton, coming up with the list of 21 meant reading every single medical examiners report on every child that died in Milwaukee County in five years. That kind of work was especially tough for a mom with two very young kids. She remembers reading about a little girl who was strangled on a swing set while twisting her swing in circles. Her baby sitter was shooting pictures of girl, not realizing that she was choking to death.

“There were many, many times when I'd wake up in the middle of the night and check on my son in his crib and wonder if what happened to those kids I was reading about each day would ever happen to him,” Barton says.

Wentz-Graff remembers the morning she photographed the plot where Christopher Thomas ultimately was buried, then photographing his aunt's court hearing later that afternoon. She broke down in tears while discussing where in the courtroom she should stand with her camera. “I don't think I realized until that moment how much pressure I felt being the final voice for these children. Nobody would tell these stories if we didn't,” says Wentz-Graff, who was in starting the process of adopting a child — outside the foster care system — at the time.

She also recalls sitting in the courtroom during the sentencing of Arkisha Johnson for the death of her 5-month-old son, Will Robert Johnson. Upon hearing the verdict against her, the baby's father, David Evans, ran out of the courtroom and sobbed in the hallway. Wentz-Graff followed him, although not without some hesitation. “It was really hard to take a picture of someone who was so vulnerable. He was just so stripped by what had happened,” she says.

“There were many, many times when I'd wake up in the middle of the night and check on my son in his crib and wonder if what happened to those kids I was reading about each day would ever happen to him.”

She went on to spend days with Evans and his two older sons. She photographed them at Will's gravesite eating cupcakes on his birthday. She drove in Evans' car with the two boys riding in the back seat next to an easel plastered with photos of their dead baby brother.

The team's findings reflected uncomfortable realities about race. As it happened, the vast majority of children who died while in contact with the bureau were black. “We just went where the story was. We just wrote about what we had. We had to be careful not to dismiss a story because it doesn't fit into what we wish we could say about the world,” Stephenson says.

The Journal Sentinel's watchdogs managed to pull off what most journalists don't — circumventing the prohibitions of child welfare agencies not only by naming the child victims and publishing photos of them, but also by telling, step by detailed step, how the system ignored the warning signs. The project infuriated officials who, in the name of protecting kids, were hiding behind a veil of secrecy to protect themselves and their agency.

“Peeling back those layers, I think, was our biggest accomplishment,” Barton says.

“Our position was that if we found people on our own, the court has no right to tell us what we photograph or write about,” Stephenson adds.

“Fatal Care” — which won a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism in 2010 — got results. By putting the secrecy of the system under scrutiny, the project prompted lawmakers to pass a law holding welfare officials accountable for the children under their watch.

“There's a difference between the child welfare system in Milwaukee now and what it was before Christopher Thomas's death,” Stephenson says. “Those differences are remarkable. They're why we do what we do.”