This story is the result of an idea that evolved throughout the reporting process. I was initially assigned to work on a story about children with disabilities who are living in nursing homes. As I dug deeper and interviewed people, a related but different story emerged, one about children in residential treatment facilities and the shortcomings of Georgia’s mental health care system as a whole.
The first step in the process was reading the Covering Poverty disability beat guide. The datasets, language guides and information about the nuances of disability and poverty provided me with a foundation I relied on throughout interviewing and writing.
I interviewed Zolinda Stoneman, the director of the University of Georgia’s Institute on Human Development and Disability. The institute’s grant funded this reporting project. Our talk gave me a more comprehensive picture of the history of mental health care and institutionalization in Georgia, including the 1999 Supreme Court Olmstead decision. Olmstead ruled it unconstitutional to segregate people with disabilities.
Stoneman recommended another source: the Children’s Freedom Initiative, an organization founded by the nonprofit Georgia Advocacy Office. My interview with advocate Joe Sarra provided me with a wealth of information and context about the state’s mental health care system.
I asked Sarra if he knew of any families that would be willing to share their story. Initially, still pursuing the idea about children in nursing homes, I asked about families with children who had spent time in those facilities. Sarra put me in touch with Kelli Lewis, the mom of two boys with special needs. Neither had spent time in a nursing home but both had spent cumulative years in state residential psychiatric facilities.
The article hinges on the story of Lewis’ sons, mainly Ahav, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. She talked candidly about her experience as a mother caring for her sons and the gaps in the system that mean they don’t get adequate care. After talking with her, I wrote my first draft and fact-checked it.
I knew data was important for the article, and it was fairly simple to find statistics on the number of children in Georgia’s care system and facts about the state Medicaid program.
One of the key steps in the writing and editing process was to ensure the story met the AP Stylebook’s standards for reporting about disabilities; the AP Stylebook updated and expanded its guidance in 2021. I made changes to some of the wording to reflect those standards. For example, I changed “struggling with his own mental illnesses” to “experiencing his own mental illnesses” in order to not perpetuate stereotypes that disabilities are something negative to be overcome.
This experience deepened my interviewing skills, particularly when talking with sources about sensitive conditions that affect their daily lives. It reinforced the necessity of having empathy to ensure people are portrayed in a way that is fair and honest and doesn’t contribute to harmful stereotypes.
Jacqueline GaNun is a fourth-year journalism major at the University of Georgia.
Kelli Lewis’ oldest son, Ahav, loves to design sneakers. He’s good at it, too. Lewis said she thinks his designs are “amazing,” and he could make it his career. But Ahav’s dreams have been stymied by what Lewis describes as inadequate care for his mental health conditions.
“I would love to say that one day he would have his own sneaker line and be sitting running his company,” Lewis said. “But I don’t know if he’s ever going to have the faculties to be able to do that.”
Ahav, who is 13, has been diagnosed with multiple severe mental illnesses. He hears voices and has trouble regulating his emotions and impulses, which sometimes affects his younger brother, Analiel, who is experiencing his own mental illnesses.
Lewis’ two sons are among the more than 14,000 children who have received care from Georgia’s mental health institutions, including in residential treatment centers and state psychiatric hospitals, according to federal data. Lewis said her sons have fallen through the cracks in a flawed system that needs fundamental change.
Gaps in Georgia’s care system
The root of Lewis’ struggles with the system is that the state does not have enough trained mental health providers, said Joe Sarra, an advocate at the Children’s Freedom Initiative. The state initiative created by the nonprofit Georgia Advocacy Office works to get children out of institutional settings into supportive communities.
Many of the flaws in Georgia’s care system stem from a lack of infrastructure when the state shut down many of its institutions around 2005, after which there weren’t enough community-based care services to route people to, Sarra said. Children ended up in psychiatric residential treatment facilities, “intermediate care facilities” and nursing homes. Of these three, the bulk of children are in residential facilities.
“The longer that kids are segregated away from their peers — their peers without disabilities — and they’re maintained in these congregate, segregated settings, they actually become more globally developmentally delayed,” Sarra said.
The number of children in residential facilities has increased over the years, Sarra said. He said it’s because the state doesn’t provide case management or inform parents of their rights. Foster parents also don’t receive adequate training or resources to foster children with disabilities, and they end up bouncing around between facilities and temporary homes, he added.
He and Lewis met a couple of years ago. At this point, Lewis said, they email just about every day.
“I knew that things weren’t being done correctly,” Lewis said. “I was just a mommy knowing, and Joe came with no, here’s the statute.”
Georgia’s mental health system, Lewis said, is not built to help her sons, who require more specialized and intensive care than other children. The programs of care, built around things like depression and anxiety, don’t work for what she describes as Ahav’s more intense conditions, including schizophrenia. Childhood schizophrenia is rare, affecting approximately 1 in 40,000 children. Yet pages of medical history and previous diagnoses don’t protect against medical professionals questioning Lewis’ son’s reality.
“Childhood psychosis has been happening for a long time,” Lewis said. “At what point are you all going to create a program, at least one in the state, for these kiddos?”
Ahav has been to every residential psychiatric facility in the state, moving in and out of treatment facilities for much of his life. Lewis said he’s fallen into a gap in the system — he doesn’t have a treating psychiatrist because they deem Ahav “too severe for outpatient.” Insurance requirements have also complicated his care and caused financial strain on Lewis’ family.
People with disabilities are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than people without disabilities, according to the National Council on Disability. Lewis, who lives in DeKalb County, is a single mother. She used to teach and perform as a singer, but had to quit her job to take care of her sons. Her music career is also on hold. She’s worked in the gig economy delivering groceries for Instacart and tries to work from home for a travel company, but she said it’s hard to schedule calls around caring full-time for Ahav and Analiel.
She and her family are on Supplemental Security Income Medicaid, a program that helps low-income people pay for medical care.
Lewis said sometimes Ahav knows he’s not ready to leave a treatment facility. The pair has sat in family sessions and he tells doctors if he does go home, he feels like he might hurt himself or his family.
“And he comes home the next day,” Lewis said. “Because insurance says he has to come home.”
Ahav gets discharged for whatever reason — because insurance won’t cover more nights in the hospital, or it won’t cover out-of-state treatment, or he didn’t experience a bad enough episode while in treatment. He goes back home, and then eventually back into an institution. Sarra said the treatment facilities that don’t work with families to provide care after discharging patients contribute to the “cycle of crises” that Ahav and others experience.
“I know special needs families from every demographic, and I don’t care how much money they started off this journey with, it doesn’t matter. It guts you,” Lewis said.
‘How do you get help like that?’
Children’s Freedom Initiative has helped families access more community-based care since its founding in 2005, Sarra said. But there remain kids like Ahav, who still hasn’t been able to get adequate care.
“The state should be recruiting providers who are trained and open to serving kids to have high-level behavioral needs,” Sarra said.
Lewis said she worries even more for her sons’ futures. As they get older, it’s becoming even harder to protect them. She is concerned about Ahav being with roommates who have sexual aggression issues.
She also said she fears encounters with the police. As Ahav grows out of childhood, in a criminal justice system that discriminates against Black people, especially those with mental illnesses, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, he is more likely than a white teenager to be sentenced to jail and less likely to receive care once he’s there.
“One of Ahav’s therapists told him, you know, dude, one day you’re gonna attack the wrong person. They’re gonna press charges. You’re gonna end up in juvie, not the hospital,” Lewis said.
While Sarra said funding for the waivers should be expanded, it’s crucial for the state to train more providers, which he said is the cause of the problem.
“You have an institutional setting that is sending a child home with no services in place,” Sarra said. “If the parent brings the child home and has another behavioral crisis, the cycle begins again.”
Lewis envisions communities where kids and adults with disabilities can live on their own with support when they need it. Until the system shifts from a punitive to a more human-centered approach, Lewis said, kids like Ahav and Analiel will continue to fall through the cracks.
“How do you get help like that, when you’re being treated like you’re an offender, when you’re really just sick?” Lewis said.
Jacqueline GaNun is a fourth-year journalism major at the University of Georgia.
Here’s one idea for service journalism on poverty-related matters.
Check out the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s explainer below about child tax credit payments. The AJC created the one-page document from a piece published on AJC.com and in print in summer 2021, just as the monthly payments began.
This guide — using an ASF (alternative story form) with the Q&A setup — is intended to be shared with people who need to know whether they qualify, what it takes to receive it and more information about the child tax credit.
Download and share the document (with AJC credit) with readers/viewers, community groups, nonprofits, individuals and families.
This tip sheet serves as a tool for journalists to use while pitching, writing, producing and editing stories on poverty. While this list doesn’t include every aspect of the subject, it can help you brainstorm how to approach your next story. Here are 10 best practices for covering poverty:
Get the data and find key documents.
Develop your story from statistics. Gather key documents and data, then connect the numbers to a socioeconomic characteristic related to your beat or a timely issue. After that, compare state and national statistics to what you find to put your story into a greater context.
You can find even more essential data sets here. The facts you find can reveal gaps in the community you’re covering. From there, it’s your job to illustrate those gaps in your storytelling.
To start, look at the level of federal funding intended to boost a community’s economy. You can find that information on Recovery.gov and USAspending.gov. Also, research how a county is allocating stimulus funds on ProPublica. It’s important to follow the flow of money from the government to agencies, trickling down to businesses and consumers.
Commit to thorough sourcing.
Interview local experts about how poverty affects their community. Think big picture. Ask questions that speak to how the income divide can affect multiple areas of a person’s life.
After you interview the experts, get to know the people who are experiencing the topic you’re covering. If people are willing to speak with you, find out about the community they live in, figure out the cost of their average expenses and how their environment affects their standard of living. Talking to real people will bring your data to life.
Localize your angle.
If you aren’t covering poverty in your own community, find reporters who live in that area and use them as a source for gaining a deeper understanding of public opinion within that community.
It is important for audiences to understand poverty is happening where they live, not just in other parts of the country.
While national politics can feel distant to audiences, local politics focuses on how resources can be delivered and distributed within a community. The poverty rate of a community directly impacts local government services such as the police, schools, hospitals and any other form of social services.
Understand the terminology.
Learn how to speak the language. Poverty is relevant to several beats. Become an expert on your beat to understand its relationship with poverty. For example, government spending involves complicated language. You have to know the difference between funds that are “awarded” vs. funds that are “allocated,” or what a “cost-plus contract” is. If you don’t know what these terms mean, then you won’t be able to understand the impact they may have on communities below the poverty line.
Understanding terminology is the first step to asking the right questions, especially when you’re interviewing local experts. Communicate in the expert’s language, so they can give you feedback in the appropriate context.
Narrow your focus.
Poverty is a complex issue. Reporters can’t cover every element of poverty in one story. Find one or two specific areas to focus on and commit to in-depth reporting. Here’s Yale School of Medicine Science Writer, Kathleen Raven, explaining how she approached reporting a story on a healthcare clinic in Greene County, Georgia:
Studies have proven that there is a connection between poverty, crime and mass incarceration, education, health and other regularly-covered beats. Find ways to incorporate poverty-related narratives into other beats rather than covering these stories by themselves.
This enables reporters to provide in-depth coverage on poverty within a specific topic area while still remaining holistic in their overall approach. Journalists don’t have to narrow their poverty coverage to specific beats, but it is a helpful tool to stay concise in their reporting.
Incorporate multimedia elements.
If you’re writing a written article, take your reporting to another level by adding multimedia elements. Create a story where your readers can not only read about poverty, but give them an opportunity to see and hear what poverty feels like through photos, graphics, video and audio components.
Read this Chattanooga Times Free Press series on poverty called “The Poverty Puzzle.” Notice how the stories are full of photos, infographics and data visualizations that explain what’s happening beyond the words written on the page. Using multimedia elements allows the audience to connect with what’s happening in a story and makes their experience more tangible.
Connect the dots.
While reporting on poverty, it’s easy to fall into the habit of reporting facts without pulling all the pieces together. Focus on relating public support to policy initiatives that could impact low income residents. This will demonstrate a direct connection on how the public affects poverty, positively or negatively, by their actions.
One of your responsibilities as a reporter is to separate persistent poverty, which is experienced over a longer period of time, and episodic poverty that is onset by temporary economic downturns. By outlining poverty’s many shapes, its past forms and its future trajectory helps audiences understand how it permeates into many aspects of life.
Time it up.
Like all news, no matter the topic, newsworthiness shapes the public’s perception on an issue. When people are experiencing a collective worry about the economy and community welfare, people’s attention is more receptive to reading on topics. The timing and significance of poverty is determined by the overall state of the economy. Concern about how families are faring during these times of uncertainty is on the minds of the public.
When timing is off for an article, it dispels a feeling of urgency and breeds complacency in an audience. Reporters can help facilitate change by giving voice to issues and raising questions that other people may be too afraid to address.
Widen your audience.
Audiences are drawn to stories they can relate to. People experiencing poverty is a small part of the audience you should be trying to reach. Stories on poverty should be relevant to everyone.
“Readers who are not poor can relate especially to stories in which they could imagine themselves if their luck ran out, or if they were born into different circumstances,” said Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr.
Income and class will continue to influence both local and national politics in America.
Adding solutions to a story can take many forms, such as including links to resources, contact information of the sources included in the piece, highlighting ways people can become involved and including information about upcoming events. From analyzing data to sharing solutions journalists have an opportunity to make an impact through their reporting on poverty. Allow these tips to guide you into creating quality content that is relevant to your audience and accurately conveys how poverty affects your community.
Kelsey Coffey and Lillie Beck graduated in fall 2020 with journalism degrees from the University of Georgia.