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For series on child abuse, finding and keeping sources was the challenge

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

For series on child abuse, finding and keeping sources was the challenge

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[Photo by Noah Scialom/The Atlantic]

I’ve long been familiar with the ACEs study, but I hadn’t seen a lot of reporting on child abuse interventions in a major national publication. I decided to probe why it is that parents abuse their children, what the impacts on the children are, and what can be done about it.

The first piece, the “Diaper Dilemma,” was a short blog item I dashed off after hearing a statistic during the conference I attended as part of the 2015 National Fellowship. According to one study of new moms, 30 percent said they couldn't afford sufficient diapers for their babies. This caused extensive mental health issues for the mothers and led some of them to reuse dirty diapers. It also prevented them from enrolling their children in daycare, which usually require extra diapers for drop-off. This, in turn, can contribute to child abuse because the children are left with unfit caregivers. Ironically, this story was the most successful of the bunch. It directly led to the introduction of a congressional bill and eventually to the White House spotlighting the issue.

The next story was the “Hardest Job,” which was published in December. Since the series was about child abuse, I wanted to do something on spanking — how parents feel about it and what attempts to stop parents from spanking look like. I focused on Cierra Thomas and her husband, Tony Gardner, who were attempting to raise four children in a small room of a homeless shelter. I found them through a parenting intervention that encourages parents to stop yelling at or spanking their kids. I found the organization that runs the program through an informational interview with a social worker. I had to convince the organization, PACT, to introduce her to me. Then I had to convince Cierra and the shelter to let me follow her around on three separate occasions in order to construct a narrative arc. I also had to carefully balance her strong belief in corporal punishment against what I know to be true about corporal punishment from the scientific literature — that on the whole it’s more harmful than beneficial.

Another project story “The Second Assault,” also published in December, came out of a casual conversation I was having with a friend who works in the child-wellbeing space. He mentioned that he had recently learned that victims of sexual abuse are much more likely to become obese adults, which I found absolutely heartbreaking and fascinating. This story was highly complicated and required many hours of careful reading of the medical literature as well as fact checking. Finding women who would be candid about their stories of abuse was incredibly difficult. I reached out to countless nonprofit organizations. I found my main source, Cissy White, by listening to hours upon hours of a podcast in which abuse victims share their stories. I waited until I heard a story that sounded like what I had been reading in the studies, and then I reached out to her. Prior to that, one of my main sources dropped out right as I was wrapping up reporting.

The final story, “Welcome to Parent College,” is about a parenting program called Triple P. Like many other programs, Triple P is backed by large U.S. studies. But I found it interesting because unlike other programs, it has a component of large seminar classes where parents learn from a standardized curriculum. It has also been the subject of scrutiny over perceived conflicts of interest and seeming failures abroad. That added an interesting twist, so I decided to profile these types of interventions, with Triple P and its challenges as the lens.

A few words of advice for others reporting on these issues:

Cut through the jargon: It took me a while to understand the child-abuse prevention landscape because early on I would let program heads ramble on in their jargon without pinning them down on specifics. This subject matter is so sensitive, and these programs (perhaps understandably) don’t want to alienate their clients by calling them child abusers or disclosing any specifics about their issues. It seemed no one wanted to even say the words “child abuse.” I remember I was 35 minutes into another “we support parents in getting the tools to put in their parenting toolkit …” spiel when I snapped and said, “What exactly are the parents doing to their kids, and what are you doing to stop them?” The source was taken aback, but it did help me get closer to the answer.

Be upfront with the types of confirmation you’ll need from your sources: For the story about sexual assault, my main source balked after I had spent roughly eight hours interviewing her, because I told her I’d need to call her friends and relatives and fact-check her story. (The accused were all dead.) She dropped out of the story shortly after that, and I had to quickly replace her with someone else. I would say that for topics like these, it's important to lay the ground rules before you invest hours and hours in a source. Tell them the extent to which you'll need verification of what they say and ask them how that will make them feel.

Let your lawyers see sensitive stories early: The deadline for the final story really snuck up on me, so I had to send the story to our legal department just a few days before it went up. She flagged a potential issue, which fortunately we were able to get resolved quickly, but it would have been nice to have had a few days to resolve it instead of a mad scramble at the end.

Read Olga Khazan's fellowship stories here.


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