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How I got the story: Alexandra Zayas

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Alexandra Zayas

Alexandra Zayas

The investigation began with an e-mail tip to the Tampa Bay Times about possible abuse at a religious-based boarding school in the Florida Panhandle. The e-mail was forwarded around until it reached general assignment reporter Alexandra Zayas in the newspaper’s Tampa bureau. What Zayas soon found out: a number of unlicensed Christian children’s homes in Florida operated under a religious exemption in the law that freed the schools of state supervision. Using records and extensive interviews, Zayas was able to prove that — for years — children were beaten, shackled and degraded at some of these homes. Months after the report was published, Zayas’ three-part series “In God’s Name” is still emitting waves of change in Florida. A piece of legislation in response to some of the problems brought up in the series has passed the Florida Legislature and is headed to the governor. One home with evidence of longtime abuse to children closed down four months after the series ran in October. Zayas, a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize and winner of the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting, talked to Managing Editor Nicole Lozare about how she used records to detail the abuse and how those same records helped her get both sides of the story.

To read Zayas’ report, go to www.tampabay.com/faccca/.

So it started with an e-mail tip, right?

It was one tip about alleged abuse at a boot camp in Bonifay. My editor asked a very good question: who regulates places like this? And I found out about the Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies (FACCCA). I learned about this whole religious exemption that was created 30 years ago and it wasn’t really on people’s radars back then and certainly not now. But it allowed places to operate without licenses — without regular inspections from the state but inspections with (FACCCA), which was run mostly by the people who were heads of the schools who were policing themselves.

Before this series, how familiar were you with Florida’s public records laws and what records you can get?

I was pretty familiar through my experience as a court reporter. I knew that Florida’s public records laws are very good and very open. So I assumed that a lot of stuff would be available to me. I also knew that the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) documents were closed. I knew going in that I would not be able to look at detailed abuse investigations.

Tampa Bay Times photo by Kathleen Flynn

A 14-year-old eats soggy vegetables swimming in vinegar and spices as punishment at Southeastern Military Academy. Alexandra Zayas, left, reported on the harsh punishments at the unlicensed children’s homes.

Did you have difficulty getting records for this because your story involved juveniles?

I didn’t expect to get child abuse investigation records and I didn’t. But I didn’t know that they could give me summaries of their investigations. For example, I couldn’t get the actual investigative report but I could get a one-line summary of the year, the finding and the type of abuse that they found. I would see some red flags right away.

So that was kind of the first nugget for you?

Yes, it was a good little road map. I had no problem getting the police reports with juveniles’ names redacted. Same thing with lawsuits. But I was able to see the parents’ names in some cases. If I was able to find parents, I was able to find the kid. What was not public were the inspections of these places. Had it been a state regulated home, the state’s child protection officials would have been able to provide me with inspection records.

How responsive was DCF with your requests? How promptly did they respond?

Extremely promptly. I had a public information officer (PIO) who I was corresponding with several times a day. I don’t think they knew how labored things would be on their end at first. First, I asked for all the homes regulated by FACCCA. Then I started realizing that there was something here, so I said let’s go back 5 years. Then the investigation spread out. It wasn’t just about FACCCA anymore. I discovered some places that lost FACCCA accreditation but were operating with no oversight at all.

Tampa Bay Times photo by Kathleen Flynn

Students at Marvelous Grace Girls Academy in Northwest Florida are expected to strictly follow fundamentalist Christian ideals. According to Zayas’ report, the school does not have a state license, does not have a religious exemption through FACCCA and is not accredited as a boarding school.

Tell me a bit about how important that relationship was with the PIO? Did you officially file your records requests with the state agency or would all the requests go through her?

I did it all in writing. We sent hundreds of e-mails back and forth. Because there were so many requests and they had access to stuff there was no way I could get otherwise, it was extremely important for them to be responsive and It was also important for me to have everything in writing because there were so many requests and it was important to keep track of it. And the requests keep coming. I’m keeping tabs on some of these homes that DCF is keeping tabs on. I’m checking in constantly. This week, have you done anything new? Have you filed any lawsuits? Do we have any new abuse reports?

Do you recommend for reporters starting a big project like this to give a heads up to PIOs who they will be working with regularly?

It depends on the project. I wasn’t investigating them and transparency is important. They knew where I was coming from so that we could be on the same page about what (the newspaper) needed. We had lengthy conversations throughout the process. I wasn’t interviewing her, we were just talking logistics. For example, what can I get, what can’t I get.

I noticed that one of the schools changed names. Did you have problems tracking them when they changed names?

Well, they didn’t change addresses. But sometimes it was hard because I had to go to each individual police department and get individual police records. So you couldn’t just ask them to search one name. Or sometimes it would be the same name but a spelling was off or something like that. So you would have to have them run different names. I found out early on, not only do the names change but some schools call themselves different things at the same time.

What were the schools’ or FACCCA’s legal responsibility to respond to records requests?

We actually had a debate about that. At one point, our lawyer sent them a letter saying we believe FACCCA was performing a government function. If they were acting as a regulator in place of the government, we believed that we were entitled to these records. They sent us back a letter saying they did not believe that they were. We did not pursue it further, but it’s still not out of the question.

Did you have any problems with the fact that these were nonprofits or religious institutions? Did you know what you had access too?

I knew I would have access to (tax records). Because they were private organizations, that was my biggest roadblock. But I also knew there were other ways to look into places. There were health inspections, fire marshal inspections, lawsuits. So I was able to go around some of these roadblocks.

Were there some things you could not write because you could not support it with records?

One of the problems is that many of the kids did not have access to phones so they could not contact DCF. Many of their stories were not corroborated by paper. You would find a school that would have a few abuse summaries. But you talk to the residents and nine of them would tell you the exact same story of when the preacher’s wife beat this girl with a curtain rod and you hear the story from the girl who was beat with the curtain rod. You hear it from the two girls who were forced to hold her down. If we have multiple people corroborating the same event in great detail we’re going to go with that too. There are some things we had document support for and some things where we had multiple sources supporting it.

I also saw that you would go through forums and try to get access to former students that way. Can you tell me about that?

There were Facebook survivor groups that had formed and I would put out my request. “Hey I’m writing about this place and I’m interested to hear your stories.” Also, if I found that someone had listed one of these homes or schools (in their profile), I would try to contact them. I would find friends who they had in common and I would sort of triangulate. I would make my own makeshift roster for some of these homes where they didn’t have survivor groups.

By the time you were done, how many records are we talking about? How did you organize your records?

It was a lot of records. I know we paid a couple hundred dollars for reports from each police agency for each of the homes. It was more of digesting them as soon as I read them and creating little school profiles on each home in a word document saying what the key documents are, what the key interviews are. I also created a word document for each person I interviewed. I would try to boil down what they told me into a paragraph then I would put that into an interview thumbnails file that my editor was able to look. It was a constant process of digesting the information we were getting.

I noticed your photographer had significant access. How did you get the access to these schools that you clearly were investigating?

At first, our requests were ignored, downplayed or brushed off. It was only until I had done a lot of reporting on allegations that I sent them e-mails detailing exactly what I knew about these places did they even take us seriously. I didn’t get into my first home until August. And reporting started in January. We didn’t visit some of the homes until October. We started publishing Oct. 28. Toward the end of it, we were gaining a lot of momentum. It took us doing some solid reporting to let these places know we have a lot information and now we need context. We need your side of it.

What was your reaction when places started shutting down?

DCF started cracking down even before our story was published, which was a huge impetus to get it in the paper as soon as possible. We found out that fall that they already launched an audit of foster children that were sent to these places before our story published in response to our questions. I was more surprised about that.

You write very confidently, especially when you make allegations. Were you ever nervous when this came out? Did you think, ‘what if I got something wrong? What if I didn’t read the records correctly?’

I hope reporters have that healthy fear. But yes, we fact checked it thoroughly. We lawyered it thoroughly. I had a very good editor who was pushing me to be as pointed as possible. There were times where I would shy away from being as direct. Our edits were a constant process of sharpening the words and the language of what we wanted to say instead of trying to make it a little bit more mild with the language. Because it is scary. You’re totally naked. Those are your words. That pushed me to report even harder to be able to say the things I said.

Investigative reporting tips from Alexandra Zayas

• One reporter’s trash may be your treasure. Be the go-to person to get the forwarded tip.

• Don’t settle for low-hanging fruit. Early on, I had great interviews with former residents who told stories from a decade ago. Those people were older and easier to find. But my editor pushed me to keep looking for younger residents who could give more updated accounts of life at the homes. It was much more difficult and took longer, but ultimately, the newer stories helped give the investigation the urgency it needed to make the impact that it did.

• Organization time is not wasted time. Sometimes, this means digesting your documents and notes into summaries. Sometimes, this means taking a much-needed break to organize the mountains of paper on your desk.

• Force yourself to see the full picture as it develops. My editor encouraged me, early on, to keep a list of the findings of my investigation. This allowed me to see holes in reporting and work to sharpen those bullet points with each revision.

• Keep track of nagging things you can’t nail down yet. Some things didn’t click until months into the investigation. Some didn’t click until after publication, and made for great follow-up material.

• Keep your editor in the loop. It will buy you time. It’s also helpful to have another brain thinking with you every step of the way.

• Don’t make assumptions about access. Even if you think getting in is a long shot, try your hardest. You may be surprised.

• Keep thinking, stay flexible.